Cycling is model for cleaning up a sports culture
Published: Thursday, February 19, 2009
Updated: Thursday, February 19, 2009 04:02
Cheating in sports is nothing new. Levels of cheating range from something as innocuous as using a corked bat or doctoring a baseball to something as potentially harmful as injecting one's body with performance enhancers. Either way, cheating has been going on in one form or another for longer than most sports fans care to remember or players care to admit.
But only in recent years has this tendency towards foul play been brought to light in most professional sports, with one exception: cycling.
For years now, cycling has been laden with a stigma as a dirty sport. Starting especially in the 1990s, when doping scandals became far more frequent and highly publicized than ever before, the public opinion of the sport began to deteriorate rapidly. Fans assumed, and many still do, that the majority of the professionals they once admired were nothing more than cheaters and liars. All of those great accomplishments that once awed cycling fans were cast under a pall of doubt.
The 1990s and early 2000s were probably the most tainted years for the sport, as the rate of positive tests climbed rapidly as regulations were extended to ban more types of drugs and testing procedures began to catch up with the doping technologies available. The '90s also saw numerous all-time greats finally admit to having cheated in some way during their illustrious careers.
The lowest of the lows came in the 1998 Tour de France, often referred to as the Festina affair. The Tour took a turn for the worst when police discovered various doping materials in the possession of an employee of the French team Festina and then with the Dutch team TVM as well. In the end, only 96 of the 189 riders who started the race made it to the finish in Paris. The 1998 edition of the Tour was further marred a year later when winner Marco Pantani of Italy failed a blood test in the 1999 Giro d'Italia.
Then came Lance Armstrong. Armstrong won seven consecutive Tour de France titles from 1999 to 2005, and although he never failed a single blood test in or out of competition, the cloud of doubt surrounding his accomplishments never fully dissipated. His recent return to the sport, in addition to his spirited campaign for cancer research funding, might have the ulterior motive of helping clear his name once and for all -- although he would likely never admit it. But none of this doping activity and controversy is new. Early cycling culture attached no shame to riders' use of foreign substances to help them through impossibly hard races. Cycling greats like five-time Tour de France winner Jacques Anquetil made no attempt to hide their practices, and neither fans nor the sports governing bodies cared. It was not until 1965 that the first anti-doping regulations were passed, and even then it was still commonplace for riders to use any means they could to help their performance, and regulations were still quite lax.
Then, in 1967, British great Tom Simpson collapsed mid-race on the 13th stage of the Tour and died soon thereafter. The autopsy showed high levels of amphetamines and alcohol in his bloodstream, a combination that ultimately led to his unfortunate death. More drugs were found in his jersey pocket, and police later found more in his hotel room. After this incident, the inherent dangers of doping were finally exposed, and cycling began the tailspin that has carried the sport to where it is today.
Since Simpson's death, cheating has become more expensive, more advanced and more difficult to detect. But after a series of immense scandals that have implicated some of the sport's greatest talents over the past 10 years -- some of which are ongoing -- the testing technologies have finally caught up with the cheating capabilities.
Doping was once an organized practice that some teams advocated, though not publicly. Team directors and doctors were often responsible for administering drugs to their athletes, and at other times they just turned a blind eye when their athletes formed relationships with private doctors who were clearly responsible for more than just regular check-ups. Unlike such sports as baseball and football where players, owners, managers and commissioners continue to remain shockingly silent or sadly naïve about the state of their sports, the leaders of the cycling community have finally decided that the sport is need of a major culture shift.
Leading the way are teams like Garmin-Slipstream (USA), Saxo Bank (Denmark) and Columbia-Highroad (USA). In addition to the already extensive in- and out-of-competition testing that the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the sports governing body, places on riders and their teams, these teams have helped to forge the way in insisting that their riders compete the right way. Through internal testing procedures of their own, these teams have helped to clean up the image of the sport by proving that it is possible to win with no more than sweat and perseverance.
Despite the great strides, the sport is still struggling to clear its name and save itself from fleeting sponsors and fans. Ironically, the very actions intended to clean up and save the sport have been the ones responsible for its demise. Fans and sponsors have grown increasingly skeptical as the number of exposed cheaters has continued to rise. What all parties involved need to understand is that these results are a positive sign and not an indicator of increased doping practices. A higher rate of positive tests means that the new policies are working and that riders can no longer expect to cheat and get away with it.
Now that baseball superstars like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez are being exposed and fans are realizing that they can no longer turn a blind eye to what is obviously a far more widespread practice than anyone would like to believe, cycling might finally have some company. Cheating in sports is a universal practice, not limited only to endurance sports like cycling or track. If and when the current steroid investigations in baseball produce unfortunate results, cycling should cease to be the source of blame for cheating and instead become the model for how to purify an unclean sport. But it is never easy to do the right thing, and whether it is cycling, baseball, football or any other sport, things can only get worse before they get better.