Paul Lewis: Tour ban small but a start in doping battle

By Paul Lewis

Strange how bicycle rhymes with farcical. Last year, in the wake of the Floyd Landis/Tour de France drugs schemozzle, I wrote a column. I am now regretting not taking my own advice.

The media have a key role to play, I said. We should take a stand. Media outlets should give the Tour de Farce no coverage. No coverage, no publicity. No publicity, no brand exposure or payback for sponsors. No sponsors, no riches. No riches, less need for drugs.

I told myself that, after the Landis affair and after the drugs banning of Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso and others, the Tour was no longer a bona fide sports event but a chemistry project. Ban it from the Herald on Sunday sports pages, I thought.

Oh, it would have been a feeble gesture, sure enough. The Tour will be disadvantaged not a jot by one newspaper in New Zealand deciding not to cover the thing. Cycling in Europe, in countries like Belgium, France, Italy and Spain is almost a religion in the same way rugby is here.

Sometimes, just sometimes, you have to take a stand. Sometimes, it just takes one pebble to move for a mountain to fall down.

But... I backslid. I saw an event unfolding that, without Lance Armstrong, seemed to be deliciously poised in a state where the identity of the winner was not clear.

Perhaps this was finally the year that drugs would not affect the Tour - a magnificent event and previously one of the great sporting contests on the planet before the scourge of drugs reduced its credibility.

So I thought. Until there were doubts raised about the missing of drugs tests by Tour leader Michael Rassmussen. Then Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping, Italian Cristian Moreni was popped for testosterone and the respective Astana and Cifidis teams were removed from the Tour and the whole, messy event was plunged again into the toilet. The teams, it seems, never learn. Nor do the riders. Nor the Tour. Nor cycling itself.

The pull of drugs is just too strong. They are obviously an essential part of the Tour, just like spare bikes, spare wheels, and the media advisers who travel with the teams to help when the inevitable scandal breaks.

The only way to break the cycle - no pun intended - is to hit the Tour where it hurts. Money.

After a long history of drugs and, for the past three years, the expulsion of leading riders, the Tour is as big and strong and as enthusiastically greeted as ever.

It doesn't seem to matter that disgrace pelts down on the heads of the Tour like a storm over the Pyrenees. The Tour picks itself up like a crashed rider, straightens its wheel and wobbles off again. The crowds are still there. So is the kudos. And the money. And, of course, the drugs.

While this state of affairs continues, so will the Tour. They will cluck and tsk and make all the right noises.

But nothing will really change. Oh, sure, the Tour is trying harder - and so is cycling - to rid itself of the problem but the plain fact remains that they are treating the symptoms and not the cause.

The Tour and the drugs will only change when the punishments outweigh the rewards; when the sponsors start turning away from the sport because their brand suffers from public perception; when, maybe, public perception in Tour-crazy countries finally turns sour; or when media outlets stop publicising the wretched thing.

For punishment, maybe the sport has to adopt, urgently, the lead of the Italians and criminalise doping; we're talking prison sentences.

So you read it here first, folks. A world exclusive. The Herald on Sunday sports pages will cover no more Tour de France this year. You won't be missing much - Landis is still trying to clear his name through the courts from last year.

For those of you thinking 'what about track & field; what about weightlifting?'- fair point, but drugs reach further into cycling and fans than perhaps any sport.

Vinokourov is from Kazakhstan. Yes, the nation that gave us Borat. For the youngsters of Kazakhstan, where about 250,000 of the 15 million population are drug addicts, Vinokourov was inspirational. The Prime Minister, Erlan Idrissov, said: "Many boys and girls will jump into cycling, they will stay away from drugs and bars and they will have something to devote their lives to."

Uh huh, uh huh.

In the movie Borat, Cultural Learnings of America for make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan the main character re-appears at a genteel dinner table with the result of his solid efforts in the toilet in a plastic bag and deadpans for help on where to put it.

Well, it's turned up. The Tour de France is covered in it. Again.

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