Tainted Tour de France finishes under cloud
Rampant doping cast a pall over the Tour de France's 104th year.
It's been two years since Lance Armstrong retired from professional cycling. But instead of watching new stars rise, the sport's fans have had little to cheer lately.Skip to next paragraph
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Riders in the Tour de France crossed the finish line on the Champs d'Elysées in Paris Sunday under one of the darkest clouds in the event's 104-year history. Spain's Alberto Contador won. But during the three-week race, three riders tested positive for banned substances, and Denmark's Michael Rasmussen, the race leader, was kicked off his team Wednesday amid doping suspicions. Two teams pulled out of the Tour last week after their riders were implicated in doping violations.
Some cycling observers say the sport is finally cleaning up its act, and this year will mark a turning point. Others say the clouds won't dissipate soon.
Some TV networks have stopped broadcasting the sport. Across Europe, corporate sponsors are pulling their support or at least reconsidering their backing of cycling teams. Germany's Interior Ministry might cancel the World Cycling Championships scheduled for September in Stuttgart. Even cycling's place in the Olympics is set for debate.
But amid the scandals is what some call a last-ditch effort to save the sport: European countries are passing antidoping laws. Funding for drug testing is set to increase. Cycling teams are pledging to make testing integral to their programs.
Pat McQuaid, the embattled president of the International Cycling Union, the sport's governing body, says cycling has reached "a turning point" and that a major revolution is already under way.
Mr. McQuaid says the 400 drug tests that took place at this year's Tour, the most ever, worked – and three positive tests is proof of that. "Out of 190 guys, that's not a lot," he says. "There are 187 guys in there that were riding clean, and haven't [tested positive]."
A year of scandals to overcome
But given the past year, it is hard for some to share McQuaid's optimism.
Just before the 2006 Tour de France, Spanish police busted a doctor who was allegedly a part of a massive doping ring. His files implicated hundreds of top athletes, including dozens of cyclists.
Days after last year's Tour ended, the winner, American Floyd Landis, tested positive for banned testosterone; his case is still under appeal.
This spring, some of the sport's biggest names admitted to using erythropoietin, or EPO, in the 1990s. EPO, a cancer drug, helps athletes' endurance by boosting the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells in the body.
No country was rocked harder than Germany, which has had a love affair with cycling ever since 23-year-old Jan Ullrich won the Tour de France in 1997 while riding for the German Telekom team, now called T-Mobile.
After Spanish authorities found nine bags of his blood in the 2006 "Operation Puerto" doping bust, T-Mobile fired Ullrich. Several of his former T-Mobile teammates came forward this spring to admit using EPO in the 1990s, while Ullrich maintains his innocence.
The confessions were portrayed as a sign that cycling was on the mend. But some longtime observers didn't buy it.
"In my opinion it was mostly a confession for show. They told us some small parts of the doping reality," says Ralf Meutgens, a former German national coach and author of the book "Doping im Radsport" (Doping in Cycling), published this April. "The whole truth would be truly shocking for the public."
The scandals are hitting the sport where it hurts most – the wallet.
When the first doping scandal surfaced at this year's Tour de France, Germany's two public television networks, ARD and ZDF, pulled the plug on live coverage of the event. ZDF, which had been broadcasting the Tour since 1998, says the decision cost it as much as 400,000 euros ($545,880) in lost advertising.
Two-thirds of the station's viewers supported the move, ZDF editor in chief Nikolaus Brender says. "Our viewers have made it very clear: They are interested in the Tour de France, but in a Tour de France as a sports event. They are not interested in an event that is a pharmaceutical show."
More than most sports, cycling is dependent on sponsors. The sport doesn't generate revenue from ticket sales. Instead, almost a million people turn out to watch the Tour from curbside seats as it rolls through France, while millions more tune in on television.
But overall, cycling's viewership has taken a hit in the past year. IFM, a German market-research firm, calculated that the publicity value of sponsorships dropped 52 percent after the tainted 2006 Tour.
The seemingly nonstop scandals since have even longtime cycling sponsors like T-Mobile, Deutsche Bank, Credit Agricole, and Czech carmaker Skoda reconsidering their support for the sport.