Friday, 24 August 2012

Armstrong's decision means it's make or break time for the Tour and professional cycling

Nice bike, shame about the drugs?
So that's that then. After years of guerilla warfare against those organisations and individuals who have accused him of doping his way to seven Tour de France wins Lance Armstrong has finally thrown in the towel and decided not to contest the doping charges laid against him. His decision is tantamount to an admission that he is a 'drug cheat' according to the majority of the public as well as those in the cycling world, and he is to be stripped of all 7 of his Tour titles and banned from competitive cycling.

So much for Armstrong's fate, but what of that of the Tour and professional cycling in general? After all, Armstrong has just single-handedly annihilated seven years of Tour history. They no longer exist because there is no credible winner to any of them. Armstrong's name will be erased from the records but it's not as if the man who came second each year can credibly inherit the title either.

Alex Zülle was second in 1999 but he had already been involved in a doping scandal and Jan Ullrich's second places in 2000, 2001 and 3003 would be worth nothing to him either as he was involved in more doping scandals than amost any other cyclist. Joseba Beloki, second in 2002? The answer is no again as he too was involved in a doping scandal. It's the same story for Andreas Klöden (2004) and Ivan Basso (2005.) And it's no use looking to those placed third either because many of them were involved in doping too.

In other words, it appears that all those long afternoons and hundreds of hours I spent drinking bottles of Heineken and eating peanuts whilst watching each and every one of Armstrong's wins were for nothing as those Tours have to all intents and purposes disappeared from the Tour's official records. And it's not as if Armstrong was the only winner to have had his title(s) taken away from him in recent Tour history. Floyd Landis won in 2006 but he was found guilty of doping soon afterwards and thus lost his title, and Alberto Contador lost his 2010 title for doping too. Dozens of other runners have also been found guilty of doping in the 2000s.

The implications for the future are of course serious, but they are even more serious if one takes into account the century-long history of doping in cyclism and the failure of most of the efforts which have been deployed to combat it. The Seventies and Eighties saw the ascension of cortisones and amphetamines, the Nineties were characterised by EPO, and subsequent years saw the rise and rise of sophisticated blood transfusions.

Many of those found to have illegal substances in their bodies invented and successfully submitted some ludicrous explanations to explain how they came to have ingested these substances, including spiked drinks at parties, impure food and many others. But the grand master was surely Armstrong, who used an armada of lawyers to defend himself, and this partially explains why he was never caught red-handed or successfully charged with doping even though, with well over 500 drug tests, he is the most dope-tested man in sporting history.

The Armstrong affair may be the straw which broke the camel's back and the Tour is now faced with some daunting and pressing issues to resolve. The cycling world is very much aware of that moreover, as the muted and carefully-worded comments of both cyclists and staffers shows. Doping is obviously the most important issue of all and the sport is going to have to be seen to crack down on cheats as of now if it is to live. There will also have to be a complete overhaul of the testing system in order to prevent a repeat of the connivance of testing bodies with riders, teams and others during the days of EPO in order to cover up doping scandals. And there is also a need for more proactive research and investigation to be able to predict which drugs and techniques for taking them are in the pipeline.

'Living', for the Tour de France, means having the fans on its side, but their patience is now wearing thin, and it also means having sponsors. There is sure to be a backlash from both existing and potential sponsors, whose money is the lifeblood of cycling, and the Tour is going to have its work cut out to persuade them that investing in it is not going to cost them their reputations. The opening shot in the sponsors' backlash has already been fired in fact, with Le Figaro reporting that Armstrong sponsors such as RadioShack, Nike, Coca-Cola and Subaru are considering a bid to force Armstrong to pay back the money they poured into his efforts. This has deep implications for the future because sponsors may include even more pay-back-in-case-of-cheating clauses into riders' and teams' contracts than they do already. But this could be a boon for the sport because it may make some runners think twice before doping.

Then there's TV. The Tour gets massive amounts of revenue from national TV stations all over the world but how long are they and their viewers prepared to put up with investing substantial amounts of taxpayers' money into Tour coverage given that of the 14 Tours that have been covered since the end of the Nineties, nine, yes, nine, of them have produced winners who were stripped of their titles. It is high time that TV began to give priority to sporting ethics, morals and taxpayers' interests instead of being happy to close its eyes to the abuse and rake in advertising profit. TV channels should start insisting on seeing real progress in the war against doping by using a refusal to cover the Tour as the stick. This would represent a crucial step towards reducing doping were it to happen and it would be in TV's own best interests in the long run.

All of these questions must be tackled urgently and doing so is going to take courage, not a little humble pie, a lot of self-questioning and even more resolve. It's a massive undertaking, it won't be easy, and there will be glitches along the way. But it must be done and the effort must start now and be seen to start now.

Because if it isn't, and if next year's Tour de France produces yet more dope-using riders on the podium and the usual slew of exclusions, the public, sponsors, national TV (certainly in France) and all those who have supported and been patient with cycling for so long may finally call it a day and start turning off the money taps, condemning the Tour de France and professional cycling in general to slowly wither away into relative obscurity......


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