If you think Barry Bonds’s home run chase is juicy, then take a look at the Tour de France. Yesterday, after an exciting stage win that virtually guaranteed him to win the Tour, Michael Rasmussen was pulled from the race by his own team. Why? Supposedly he didn’t follow some team rules after the race, and allegations about some missed drug tests prior to the race were already dogging him. The day prior, Alexander Vinokourov was kicked off the tour for failing a drug test.
Some in the French media have asked for the cancellation of this year’s Tour. After all, when top contenders are being yanked from the race, what is the point of watching? I watched the end of the race yesterday with much excitement. I was reminded of how much fun cycling can be, only to learn that it didn’t matter. The men who had just had their saddles handed to them by Rasmussen had really finished first and second.
I think the most troubling part of the doping cloud that surrounds cycling is that the procedures designed to keep the race clean are failing miserably. We should know soon whether last year’s Tour winner Floyd Landis is stripped of his title. His arbitration hearing in May revealed the testing safeguards are a charade—a system designed to make it look as if the sport’s overseers are in control. Rumors and speculation are enough to bar riders from the races. It’s now clear that whatever testing procedures are in place have no deterrent effect. And why should they? The testimony of the lab “technicians” in charge of Landis’s blood samples revealed the testers were incompetent. There was no secrecy, gaps in the chain of custody, and—worst of all—the people running the tests did not know how to operate the machinery used to run the tests. Hey, if you’re going to railroad the guy, at least educate your own witnesses. But why go to the effort? If a rider fails a test, he’s guilty. There is no need to look at problems with the test or the system.
What the Landis case has done is reveal that the convicted riders have a legitimate beef with the system. Every criminal claims his innocence, so we are normally skeptical of these complaints. When the Rasmussen news broke, my first thought was not “I’m glad they busted that cheat”—which it should have been—but, “I guess the organizers told the team to make him go away or you’ll pay the price.” It is possible that Rasmussen did purposely avoid drug tests to hide illicit activity, but my first reaction was skepticism of the system not the rider. Drug tests are useless if we have no confidence in the results, no matter the outcome. If I’m a cyclist, why not cheat? If you’re not popular you’re going to catch hell anyway, especially if you are good, so it makes sense to do what you are accused of doing anyway.
The bodies that oversee doping in international sports need to start over. Fire Dick Pound and others in charge of catching dopers. In their quest to bring legitimacy to the sport they set up a system designed to show “hey, we’re doing something” rather than actually doing something. Set up a system with true confidentiality in testing and employ multiple competent labs and personnel that know what they are doing and don’t leak results to the media. Teams should also take a role by starting their own testing programs than use independent labs to keep tabs on their own riders and make all results public to gain the trust of fans.
This is a circus. Few are willing to criticize the system, because that means siding with dopers. But siding with the alternative is a little more repulsive.