Shred by tattered shred, professional cycling's veil of respectability is being torn away in a French doping trial, as witness upon witness has admitted that the drug-riddled sport makes a mockery of its rules.
"Cyclists' rankings mean nothing anymore," exploded Daniel Delegove, the judge presiding over the trial of France's biggest cycling hero, Richard Virenque, after hearing compelling evidence of the widespread use of banned substances. "These are not racers, they are pedaling test tubes."
But as the trial entered its third and final week, it is far from clear that the revelations will change much in a sport that inflames European passions every summer. And the publicity, it seems, is arousing even more curiosity among teenage French athletes about how illegal drugs might help them.
Mr. Virenque and eight others in the Festina cycle racing team are on trial for breaking drug laws after the team physiotherapist, Willy Voet, was caught just before the 1998 Tour de France with a stash of illegal performance-enhancing substances in the Festina team car. His wife testified last week that her refrigerator had been piled high with growth hormones and other drugs. They "ended up taking more space than food," she said.
For two years, Virenque had denied doping himself. But he finally admitted to the court that he had used EPO, or erythropoietin, a drug thought to boost endurance by increasing the production of red blood cells.
Secret common knowledge
But if the trial has uncovered details about the depth and scale of illegal drug use in professional cycling, it has only confirmed what most people, including fans, have known. And the cycling authorities appear helpless, if not complicit, in the problem.
Among riders, "there is a small group of cheats" who are at the heart of the doping, International Cycling Union (ICU) president Hein Verbruggen told the court last week. "Then there is a much bigger group of riders who are forced to follow suit, otherwise they feel at a disadvantage; a third group don't take drugs, but stuff themselves with authorized medicine; and a smaller, fourth group takes nothing at all."
Daniel Baal, president of the French Cycling Federation, admitted that his organization "has failed in the antidoping struggle," but blamed other sporting federations for similar failures.
He did not explain why he had appointed as the French federation's chief doctor, a man accused of prescribing illegal corticosteroids to riders when he was a team physician. Nor did Mr. Verbruggen explain how an Italian doctor facing charges of distributing EPO to 63 athletes came to be on an ICU commission.
The ICU maintains that EPO is undetectable, though a twin test using blood and urine samples was used at the Sydney Olympic Games last month. "We have no chance at all to discover the use of EPO, or growth hormones," beyond a shadow of a legal doubt, says Enrico Carpani, ICU spokesman.
So the ICU has instituted a system whereby riders found with more than a 50 percent level of red blood cells - which suggests EPO use - are barred from competition for two weeks. "This is the only way you can go - not to defeat doping, because we are very realistic, but to know and follow the problem," Mr. Carpani argues.
Under these circumstances, Tour de France organizer Jean-Marie Leblanc told the court last week he had "no guarantee" that next year's race would be any cleaner than previous ones.
This would seem to undermine Virenque's voiced hope that "this trial should sort out the problem of doping in sport, because if it is not sorted out here it never will be." Especially because everyone who has appeared in court has presented himself as a victim of doping: "clean" riders who feel robbed of victories, drugged riders who say they were forced by the system to abuse their bodies, and the cycling authorities who claim they knew nothing of the cheating.
Nor is the trial likely to have an impact on most onlookers, because professional cycling has always been regarded as corrupted by drugs, says Patrick Laure, a drug specialist with the French Ministry of Youth and Sports.
The trial will not alert parents and doctors to the fact that many adolescent athletes are already using performance-enhancing drugs, he says.
Since the 1998 Tour de France scandal, the number of teenage athletes who say they are curious about the effects of such drugs has risen from 8 percent to 15 percent, according to a recent study. A sports trainer in eastern France is currently under investigation for administering testosterone, an anabolic steroid, to 12-year-old boys.
A problem of behavior
It is this sort of attitude, says Dr. Laure, that makes doping hard to eliminate. "If a teenager tells you he is tired and you tell him to take vitamins, rather than to take a rest, you are already putting him on the track," he warns.
"It happens everywhere," he points out. "People take vitamins to perk themselves up and sleeping pills to go to sleep. Athletes did not invent doping."
What is needed to tackle the issue is a change of attitude, Laure argues. "If doping was simply a problem of policing and controls, it would have been solved long ago," he says. "This is a problem of behavior that laws can't deal with."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society