According to an editorial in today’s San Francisco Chronicle:
For years, cycling has gotten a free pass from adoring fans, who ignore the underside of the drug-dependent sport. Now, finally, that’s impossible.
Top riders, past and present, including many of the biggest names, acknowledge injecting endurance drugs. The wave of confessions this past month are both damning and touching. “For those for whom I was a hero, I’m sorry,” said Bjarne Riis, the winner of the 1996 Tour de France, who admitted to blood doping. “They’ll have to find new heroes now.”
Cycling has hit rock bottom, deeper than baseball, track or other sports connected to back-alley drug use. It may be unique in its code of silence, fan indulgence and extended world of doctors, trainers and entire teams on the needle.
I find this an odd editorial, especially from a paper that has chased the BALCO story for so long. As I recall, the whole BALCO story seems to implicate athletes in a number of sports, although cycling (yet) doesn’t seem to be among them. Baseball? Check. Football? Check. Track and Field? Check.
And yet, despite the scandals, fans haven’t run screaming from those sports. A few, maybe, but not in droves. Fan indulgence? Check. Network of doctors and trainers? Check. Entire teams on the needle? How about the Carolina Panthers and their run to the Super Bowl? Check. Well, hang on, maybe it wasn’t the whole team.
Code of silence? Ask yourself this: How many pro athletes, regardless of their sport, are going to rat out their colleagues? The only way I see that happening is if they got caught with a needle in their arm and a drugstore-sized pharmacy in the trunk of their car, right while taking delivery of the drugs from their friendly, neighborhood pusher.
Somehow, fans of the more mainstream sports find a way to look past the drug use there, too. It’s not just cycling fans who give their sports heroes a free pass. It’s baseball, basketball and football fans, too.
Sure, cycling has probably hit a new low in the public’s estimation, given all the scandals in recent years. But think about how often the mainstream press covers cycling. With a few exceptions, you’ll only read cycling-related stories in the mainstream media for one of these events:
- The Tour de France, or
- The Tour of California, or
- The Tour of Georgia, or
- A doping scandal
And it’s that last item that seems to draw the most column-inches of stories and commentary. Want proof? Look through most major newspapers. How many stories do you find on Paris-Roubaix? Or Paris-Nice? Or the Giro? Or the Vuelta? Or the Tour of Flanders? Or any of a number of other races on the pro calendar? One? Two? A few? None? In most papers, the answer would be none. Unless there’s a local tie-in, or a tie-in to an ongoing story, like the Floyd Landis case, not many papers cover any of these events.
Now look for the coverage of our ongoing doping scandals in cycling. My guess is that you’re going to have a pretty easy time finding stories about Floyd Landis, Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, Bjarne Riis and others who’ve either been accused or admitted to doping. Much more than regular coverage.
Why? Because scandal sells. And most editors, like most American sports fans, don’t really care about or follow cycling. Sure the media ran big stories when Greg LeMond or Lance Armstrong or Floyd Landis won the Tour. But otherwise, you need a major scandal to get a cyclist’s name in the teaser on CNN, or in stories in the major metro papers.
So, yeah, the public’s perception of cycling is a little bit skewed. But it’s precisely because of the kind of coverage it receives. Imagine living in another country where baseball and football aren’t the major sports. If you heard about the BALCO scandal and other steroid scandals rocking those sports, and that’s all you heard, wouldn’t you think those sports had hit rock bottom?
The truth of the matter is that cycling hasn’t sunk any deeper than football or baseball or track. It’s just that the media’s coverage of cycling makes it seem that way.
Here’s the deal: There’s doping going on in all sports. And every athlete involved in doping brings his or her sport into disrepute. Cycling gets more press coverage for doping scandals than coverage of races and events compared to other sports. So it only seems like cycling has a bigger problem. The problem is there in every sport. Sports writers and editorial writers just need to open their eyes to see.
The world of professional cycling is at a crossroads right now. Depending on how the powers that be navigate the present situation, it may come out a much cleaner and healthier sport (in more ways than one) by the time this upheaval is over. Football, baseball and other sports will continue to be rocked by doping scandals for some time to come. The only difference is, their adoring fans will continue to ignore the seamy underbelly of these other drug-dependent sports.