How Low Can You Go?

by Rant on May 31, 2007 · 8 comments

in Doping in Sports, Floyd Landis, Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, Lance Armstrong, Tour de France

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.

Post to Twitter

Trislax May 31, 2007 at 12:13 pm

Hi Rant,

I always enjoy your pieces, and this one is no different. I almost responded with the same idea to Dugard a week ago when a similar topic came up, so here goes: Ultimately, we should not blame the athletes in this mess (athletics in general) because we shoulder the burden of entertainment. Each time we pay to watch sports, whatever the sport, be it live or via telecast, we are endorsing the drug culture and condoning it through our consumerism. We don’t want to see average, we want spectacular. Athletes know this, and due to sponsors, contracts, big money filtering throughout sports, they are willing to articificially enhanse their ability so ensure a livelyhood. Though it will never happen, the only way to stop the cycle (no pun intended) is to stop showing up, paying the ticket prices, buying the magazines, fanwear, etc, and do our own thing. The true proof of this is even in Nascar, where the CARS are getting juiced for an advantage. And like Paris, Lindsay Lohan, and Brittany, we all love to watch. Just my two cents…

Rant May 31, 2007 at 7:07 pm

Trislax,

You’re right, the fans shoulder some of the blame for the situation. And while the anti-doping agencies want to hold the athletes’ feet to the fire, they do nothing about the doctors, managers and team owners who also enable doping, or worse, provide the opportunity and the means to do so. If the fans revolt, and viewership/attendance tanks, sponsors would put the heat on the organizations and athletes to clean up their act. Everyone who follows sports has some share of the responsibility. And we can always vote with our feet and our remotes. I gave up watching baseball after the strike back in 1994, after getting disgusted by the behavior of both sides. Haven’t watched a game since, and have no desire to. Especially during the summer, when I’d much rather be out on my bike.

– Rant

Steve Balow June 1, 2007 at 3:24 am

Hi Rant:
I agree with you, journalists treat cycling like crap. I think that’s why you get such faithful readership. While your reporting comes with an opinion, you also provide enough background to let readers make up their own mind. I hope you keep ranting about an ever-increasing range of subjects — from a selfish point of view it will make staying informed easier for me!
Anyway, here’s something else to consider about the Riis / Zabel confessions. I’m pretty sure that LNDD wasn’t around to catch Riis / Zabel, but a lot of their hardware and software sure was. I really wonder how much the state of the art has changed under the inspired leadership of Mr. Pound (do you know?) My guess is: not much.
Which brings me back to funding and leadership; the thing that’s so frustrating about the ADO’s is that they are so rich and so poorly led. Since inception, WADA has raised over $140M. Through 2005, WADA spent more on salaries and travel than they do on research (salaries = $12.3M / 23%, travel = $9.1M / 17%, research = $5M / 9%). Worse, much of the piddling $5M WADA says was spent on research was only “granted” and remains in WADA bank accounts waiting to be doled out to researchers who presumably will “play the game” if push comes to shove because they want the dough. And, the only reason I only know the numbers through 2005 is that WADA stopped reporting expenses for all subsequent years!
Pound and WADA act like they have the technology and the process necessary. Landis and Riis / Zabel show — albeit in different ways — that the fundamental scientific and procedural underpinnings of the ADO’s are both ineffective and unreliable. It doesn’t seem possible that any positive change will occur until the ADO leadership is shown for what they are: close-minded bullies bent on enforcing a corrupt system.
To come full circle, that’s why rant’s are so important: they educate and inspire. Now, all we need to do is figure out how to mobilize”¦
Anyway, I agree the San Francisco Chronicle has the story all wrong. Until the ADO’s become a reliable agent of change, it seems that cycling is actually a poster child for sport. The team managers and many of the cyclists have admitted the problem of PDE’s, know that they cannot depend on WADA labs (since labs like LNDD can’t catch guilty guys and seem to persecute innocent ones) and are making a grassroots effort to combat the issue. What more could the sport do?

Rant June 1, 2007 at 12:21 pm

Steve,

Thanks for the compliment, most appreciated. I’m sure I’ll be able to find plenty of things to rant about. And some might drift pretty far afield from what I’ve been doing the last 10 months or so.

I think it’s highly instructive that WADA has managed to get so much funding and spent so little on actual research. By the way, if your numbers are still current, that means one Dr. J. Thomas Brenna got a whopping 25% of the grants made by our erstwhile enforcers of all things good and true. More is he’s received other grants from them over the years.

No disrespect to Dr. Brenna, I’m sure he was quite deserving of the funding. But there needs to be a whole lot more research going on, and a lot more focused on improving the current tests. One thing the Landis case has done is expose the fuzzy logic behind some of the current tests and how they are implemented.

– Rant

big jonny June 4, 2007 at 10:57 pm

What are you going to do when Landis is found guilty?

Rant June 5, 2007 at 4:13 am

Big Jonny,

How closely did you follow the hearings? I’d say there’s about a 50-50 shot either way. So what are you going to do if he’s found not guilty?

– Rant

Charles Lupica June 6, 2007 at 12:13 pm

I think that if people take a look at the economics of drug development they will have to ask themselves if a few thousand professional cyclists are enough to support an entire industry?

All the journalistic focus on cycling brings to mind the move “Wag the Dog”; premise: keep’em looking elsewhere and they won’t notice what you’re doing.

IMHO
Charlie

Rant June 7, 2007 at 3:59 am

Charles,

I think the “Wag the Dog” analogy is especially apt. With everything that’s going on right now, the cynic in me thinks that it’s all a good diversion from what WADA is really up to.

– Rant

Previous post:

Next post: