Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Other Shoe has Dropped:

The 1998 Tour de France was one of the first cycle races I watched -- on a borrowed VHS tape, no less, in the spring of 2005. That year, Italy's little Marco Pantani won the race over Germany's Jan Ullrich, with an eerily fast time trial for a man that stood shoulder-high to many riders. Not knowing anything about the history of the race, I was pretty surprised when almost half of the competitors were kicked out midway in what's now called the "Festina Scandal." Even watching a race seven years past, I was stunned. What the crap was I watching? Another big thought that crossed my mind was that if two of the big teams were definitely doping in an organized, systemic way, then nearly everyone had to be.

If TVM and Festina were doping, and they weren't totally kicking everyone off of the mountain and over to Suisse, then a lot of other people were doping to keep up, too. But then, suddenly, right before their very eyes ... nothing happened. Everyone continued as they had been, a few people got a handful of suspensions handed out, and it went on.

The "omerta," the code of silence, stayed largely unbroken until last year. A few odd riders admitted to doping, like Jonathan Vaughters and Jesus Manzano, but the cycling world largely "pffshaw"'ed them off. These were retired riders who were never really big winners anyhow -- surely, this was just a case of sour grapes. Wasn't it? WASN'T IT?

Then came "Operacion Puerto." Bags and bags and bags of blood, nitrous oxide boosters for your legs, with cute little nicknames like "birillo," and "hijo rudijiano" written on them.

It was all hearsay, they said. A witch hunt. No real evidence! Not a shred!

Of course, said each rider, I won't provide my DNA to be tested. That's for crimnals, you see, and we are not criminals.

So, what happened to Jan Ullrich -- "winner" of the 1997 Tour de France Jan, olympic champion Jan, second place to Lance Armstrong 395 times Jan Ullrich? What about all that blood labeled, "Jan?" DNA test and you're out!. Yep. His blood. Doper. Done.

Exactly what shit was flying towards the fan for Ivan Basso -- "winner" of last year's Giro d'Italia, second place to Lance Armstrong 116 times -- I'll never really know. But, Ivan, did you dope? No, no no no no. Er, um, yes. Yes.

A bit, a bit. (The nose?) And, you're done, sir.

And then it all started rolling in... the T-mobile, formerly Telekom, that famous German team that included big winners like Jan Ullrich, his former mentor Bjarne Riis, Erik Zabel, were doping. Yes, all of them. Okay, so Ullrich has vanished into the abyss from which he came, but the rest of 'em have come out and admitted doping. First it was retired support rider Bert Dietz copped to teh dope, but, of course, it's just more sour grapes, right? "Dietz was paid to say that. If Erik Zabel said something like that, it would be a different matter," quoth Walter Godefroot, manager and personal trainer extraordinaire for Ullrich et cetera, now with the new Boys in Blue, team Astana.

Well actually, said Erik Zabel, let me tell you a story: I did it, too. I doped. And Rolf Aldag, and Udo Bolts, and others. We all did it. Next, Bjarne Riis, former boss of Ivan Basso, faced the harsh light of day with a confession.
One by one, riders past and present -- though presently, more in the past -- are stepping up to step down.

Whither now? In the case of a rider like Zabel, what do you do? What was his real motivation to come out with this? Was he on the verge of being caught, and admitted doping just to save face? Or did he really feel the pains of his conscience for the past decade, and finally thought that the time was right to come clean? If Zabel, whose work ethic has long been admired by just about everyone, if he doped, who didn't?

We have to start again. Look, EPO and blood doping make you faster, right? All research readily admits that it does, that's why it's banned. If a big portion of the riders all admit to doping, and other riders are still competitive with the admitted dopers, and the dopers still trained and were talented like everyone else, it means that the other riders either have a lot more talent than we knew, or else they were dopers too.

We've got to allow some kind of amnesty. We've got to have riders admitting their doping, en masse, and also describing details: what they took, how they got it. Then, set up a more complicated system of controls and penalties. We can't say that riders, on their own, without the knowledge of their team, are doping, and so the team is fine, it's just the rider.

Cycling is the hardest, most beautiful sport on earth, or, at least, it could be. We have the technology to do this right or wrong. For the sake of everyone who's inspired by the epic struggles up mountains, who is motivated by feats of toughness and courage that seem inhuman, let's make sure that it still IS human. Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!


  • At 10:18 AM , Blogger stokediam said...

    As you head off to your first NRC race, don't forget to check for a "medical control" list at each stage so they can either suspend you for 2 years if you fail to show up for the test or, sometimes, ignore the whole procedure altogether and not test anybody.


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