The doping scandal that knocked the favorites out of the Tour de France Friday could mark a fork in the road not only for cycling's premier event, but for the sport as a whole.
The unprecedented scope (implicating 58 cyclists) and dramatic timing of this crackdown may also set a new standard for other sports dogged by allegations of illegal drug use. It also shows that police investigations – rather than testing by sports authorities – have so far proved the most effective way to catch cheaters.
"Either this is the worst day in the history of cycling or it's the day when they finally start getting a handle on the problems," says Dick Pound, president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in Montreal.
After years of suspicion over widespread cheating in the sport, Spanish authorities claim to have uncovered a major doping network. Nine cyclists – including Italian Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich of Germany, last year's second- and third-place finishers – were withdrawn Friday by their team leaders. That creates a new list of favorites, including US riders George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer.
If the Spanish investigation's findings are correct, a significant number of athletes are reportedly paying up to 40,000 euros to boost their performance through the use of banned substances and methods. In addition to using EPO and other drugs, those implicated are suspected of blood doping – extracting an athlete's blood and reinjecting it later to increase endurance.
In late May, Spanish police arrested five individuals, including Spanish doctors Eufemiano Fuentes and José Luis Merino, head of hematology for a Madrid hospital. According to reports by the Spanish newspaper El País, said to be based on court documents, Mr. Merino used hospital personnel and vehicles to procure supplies used to treat and store the cyclists' blood. The police also found at least 90 bags of frozen blood or red blood cells, identified with numbers and date. They also found lists of code names, presumed to refer to the athletes, and payment status.
According to the International Cycling Union (UCI) ProTour code of conduct, signed in January 2005, athletes implicated in an ongoing investigation can be banned from competition.
The president of the UCI, Pat McQuaid, said Saturday that if the allegations prove true, "it means we lose these guys from the sport. That is terrible, but we must clean up our sport."
Some experts say that one of the key lessons of this scandal is that doping testing isn't rigorous enough. None of the top athletes implicated had failed a doping test. "If you're testing at the wrong times and for the wrong things, you'll get no results," says Mr. Pound, the WADA chairman. "And of course, you'll run around with your statistics and say there's no doping problem."
Dr. Jim Stray-Gundersen, an antidoping expert who has served as physician on several Olympic teams, agrees. He likens it to a cop trying to catch speeding drivers in a place where people are unlikely to speed, and sometimes without even turning on the radar. He says sports authorities could be doing "a much, much better job" catching athletes using banned substances and methods.
Pound, who says his organization has no jurisdiction over the testing procedures during competition, agrees. He says Tour de France riders are allowed windows of unchaperoned time between pre-race tests and race time, and also between the end of a race and post-race testing.
"It gives them plenty of time to do something, to take a transfusion," says Pound. Stray-Gundersen points out that if athletes were tested again the following day, that transfusion could be detected.
Pound – and critics of WADA – point out that it has been law-enforcement agencies, not sports authorities, that have taken the most definitive steps in leveling the playing field. In addition to the most recent investigation by Spanish authorities, the San Francisco-area BALCO investigation was conducted by US government authorities, and the Italian government has in recent years cracked down on doping by making it a criminal offense.
While forced to sit out the Tour de France, most athletes are denying wrongdoing. Basso told the Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport, for example, that he'd done nothing, yet been treated like "a thief. I am certain I will come out of this with my head held high."
Mark Levinstein, who has represented Lance Armstrong and defended US track and field athletes in the international Court of Arbitration for Sport (created by the International Olympic Committee), says that athletes implicated in doping cases have very little legal recourse.
"If a laboratory claims that an athlete tested positive, he is doomed," says Mr. Levinstein. "In a law suit, I would have a right to go to a completely fair hearing and I would get to interview the people who worked in the lab, find out exactly which $6/hour lab employee did the test, get a copy of every document, and so on."
Media reports say the Spanish investigation implicates US cyclist Tyler Hamilton. Mr. Hamilton was banned from cycling for a positive doping test in 2004. He and his lawyer, Howard Jacobs, went to Europe and found lab records questioning the validity of the test. "We saw e-mails questioning the test under which Tyler tested positive. One written by the test creator had a subject line 'flaws in test methodology,' written 2-3 weeks before Tyler tested positive." says Mr. Jacobs.
Other than media reports, he says, they have not seen any information from the Spanish investigation. Tyler says he hasn't been treated by the implicated doctors.
While some experts suspect that the probe's findings may be only the tip of the iceberg, they seem cautiously hopeful that this investigation could tip the balance in favor of stricter antidoping controls and create more of a deterrent for would-be cheaters. That, in turn, could cut down on the number of cyclists who feel the problem is so widespread that they must either dope or compete at a disadvantage.
"The operative psychology in a majority of cases is, 'Geez, everyone is doing it, and I've got to do it, too,' " says Dr. Stray-Gundersen. Ninety-nine percent of these guys "frankly would rather not have to do it, not spend the money on it, and not risk a [health] complication or getting caught," he adds.
But despite the scandal, the Tour got off to a good start Saturday with the prologue in Strasbourg, France.
"There was an excellent friendly atmosphere, lots of support for the organizers of the race, and support publicly by the townspeople," says Johan Kaggestad, a longtime coach and a sports commentator for Norway's TV2 station. "And it will be the same around the route – people being glad that they're starting to crack down on the cheaters."