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The Tour de France Debacle - Cleaning Up Isn't Easy but It's Necessary

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Myself and the "handful" of other long-suffering cycling fans in the United States have been dealt another disappointment with the Tour de France this year. Doping has raised its ugly head again but at least charges aren't being levelled at an American team or American riders howecer recent developments could cause a complete implosion of the sport.

A week ago a German rider for the T Mobile team, Paul Sinkewitz, tested positive for elevated testosterone from a sample taken more than 7 weeks earlier. He was suspended by his team for further investigation. Sinkewitz was a domestique, or 'helper', and not a main contender, and while any positive test is a concern this wasn't too big a deal in most people's minds - he got caught and was suspended and will probably be banned from cycling for at least a year if proven guilty.

But yesterday team captain Alexander Vinokourov and his entire Astana team had to drop out of the race after his sample was alleged to have shown traces of blood doping (getting additional blood from himself or another person). Vinokourov had been riding with some horrific injuries (60+ stiches in his knees, backside, and hands) since a crash early on in the race and despite the injuries had put in some spectacular performances including a time trial win (pictured) and a mountaintop stage win. Because of his stern demeanor and no nonsense, almost vicious attitude on the bike, I had already envisioned Vinokourov as the Ivan Drago of cycling a while back - now, much like Drago, it's alleged that Vino, as he's known, is a superman powered by drugs and illegal blood transfusions. His team packed up on Tuesday and left France but with plans to do another stage race in the near future.

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This is quite different than the measures taken against Cristian Moreni, an Italian who rides for the French team Cofidis, who tested positive for elevated testosterone levels today. Because of a doping scandal that affected the Cofidis team several years ago, part of their 'health' policy is an legal agreement with the riders that the use of performance enhancers would result in a contract breach with the team - this translated today with Moreni being led away from the race by police and Cofidis pulling its entire team from competition. [Note: I had the opportunity to meet the sports director/head coach of Cofidis, Bernard Quilfen, at the Tour of Italy last year. Quilfen is a former Tour racer, who has seen the bad side effects of doping in person and who told me about his personal philosophy that is intolerant of doping. I believed him then and today his team's decision to have Moreni arrested and to pull the team from competition for investigation only confirms that philosophy.]

This brings us to the most recent decision today, that by the management of Dutch team Rabobank, to pull Tour leader and golden jersey wearer, Michael Rasmussen, out of the race. Rasmussen allegedly lied about his whereabouts during June when he was supposed to have submitted samples for out-of-competition tests. Because he missed 2 tests, the Dutch national team, at their own discretion, had already pulled him from the roster but he was allowed to continue with the professional team Rabobank for this Tour. The rule is automatic suspension if you miss 3 tests but since he "only" missed 2 I'm at a loss as to why they did this unless his truculent attitude about it put them off during this period of hypersensitivity to doping. Rasmussen hasn't failed any doping controls during this Tour despite being tested almost every day.

Now let's take a 10,000 foot view of this unfortunate situation. A lot of people, including most "professional" sports writers in the United States have the view that cycling is full of dopers because of the kind of actions I've just related: atheletes are tested throughout the year, if they are caught using performance enhancing drugs, they are punished. The truth is that cycling contains the most tested group of individuals on the planet - no other sport, not even track, does as much testing of athletes or has as severe a set of punishment for confirmed dopers.

The comparison to American sports is laughable - there is no valid or enforceable testing program in the United States and the athletes and teams walk all over the pathetic guidelines because of this lack of enforcement. Look at Barry Bonds and just about any MLB home run hitter, look at the NFL players dying of bizarre cancers in their 40s, read and hear about the experiences of admitted American dopers who say that the use of testosterone/other steroids, human growth hormone, as well as other unknown designer drugs is ubiquitous in American sports. Read about high school and even junior high school boys popping pills and sticking syringes in their asses in the hopes of being one of the 1/100th of 1% of athletes who even step on the field for one game as a professional.

The truth of the matter is that a significant percentage of American professional athletes are involved in doping and if a similar testing regime to cycling's was instituted in the US of A tomorrow no one would be able to field a team. I'm not saying that the way cycling executes its testing regimes and punishment policies are the best they could be, they could stand a lot of improvement, but at least they are doing something - they are showing that there are professional, criminal and financial repurcussions for cheating. Whereas in the United States, we have professional athletes coming onto the field who have been cheating since they were 12 years old while only hearing lip service to the ideas of: health, safety, and moral judgment. In the US, it's all carrot and no stick. The only stick in professional American sports is when you're being invetigated for or are convicted of felony offenses: hmmm, you're a rapist/drug dealer/murderer/drunk driver/thug/junkie/dogfight entrepreneur, so we'll have to suspend you for a few games.

I'm waiting to read all the sports columns over the next couple days, about what a dirty sport cycling is. As someone who loves the sport I'm sensitive to that because the sport is trying to clean itself up, to institute a culture of healthy (in all senses of the word) competition. What we're seeing now is the effort to find the bad apples and throw them in the compost heap. American sports writers have no moral high ground to speak from - American sports themselves wallow in the lowest-common-denominator trough of fame, greed, and money and it's easy for members of the media to look through the telescope at the events in France while holding their nose to block out the stench rising up around them.

[I just realized that I've made a tremendous error: yes, some American athletes are tested for narcotics as part of their parole programs but I think equivocating cocaine and human growth hormone is just a little difficult.]