There’s a stunning moment in the Danish documentary “Doping on the Road” (1999) that perfectly captures the drug-induced meltdown of professional cycling over the past decade and the obdurate dishonesty that made it possible.
The face on the screen belongs to Bjarne Riis, whose victory in the 1996 Tour de France is still considered the greatest achievement by a Danish athlete. With the camera parked inches from his nose and every sweat gland shining, Riis is asked, “Have you ever doped yourself?” Riis’ eyes go into shock, expressing catatonic fear, anger, and the hurt that comes from having been betrayed. When he had recovered enough to respond to this verbal assault, Riis’ response was neither “yes” nor “no.” What he managed to say was: “How could you ask me that question?”
That interview took place in 1998. Nine years later, on May 25, Riis confessed he had doped his way to the title and told Tour officials they were welcome to the yellow jersey sitting in his garage all those years.
Cycling has been the most consistently drug-soaked major sport of the 20th and 21st centuries. While weightlifting and shot-putting have also been thoroughly drug-dependent, they are minor cults compared with the cycling carnival that plays across Europe every year. Even Major League Baseball’s decades of amphetamine and steroid abuse cannot match cycling’s doping record.
Over the past 50 years, a majority of Tour champions as well as second- and third-place finishers have been confirmed or accused dopers at some point in their careers. (The German newsweekly Der Spiegel reported April 30 that 19 of the 22 Tour winners since 1960 have been “caught for or implicated in doping.”)
Five of the six Tour de France average-speed record-holders before Lance Armstrong — Charly Gaul (1958), Gaston Nencini (1960), Jacques Anquetil (1961), Eddy Merckx (1971) and Marco Pantani (1998) — recorded at least one doping violation. Miguel Indurain (1992) tested positive for salbutamol and was then “exonerated.”
Indeed, the history of modern doping began with the cycling craze of the 1890s and the six-day races that lasted from Monday morning to Saturday night. Extra caffeine, peppermint, cocaine and strychnine were added to the riders’ black coffee. Brandy was added to tea. Cylists were given nitroglycerine to ease breathing after sprints. This was a dangerous business, since these substances were doled out without medical supervision.
Laurent Rebours / AP file
Marco Pantani, former winner of the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia, died in his apartment-hotel in Rimini, Italy on Feb. 14, 2004 after taking massive amounts of drugs.
“For as long as the Tour has existed, since 1903, its participants have been doping themselves. No dope, no hope. The Tour, in fact, is only possible because — not despite the fact — there is doping. For 60 years this was allowed. For the past 30 years it has been officially prohibited. Yet the fact remains: great cyclists have been doping themselves, then as now,” German journalist and physician Hans Halter once said.
Following his arrest and interrogation by French police in July 1998, the top Swiss rider Alex Zülle explained how the cover-up of the doping culture had worked: “I’ve been in this business for a long time. I know what goes on. And not just me, everyone knows. The riders, the team leaders, the organizers, the officials, the journalists. As a rider you feel tied into this system. It’s like being on the highway. The law says there’s a speed limit of 65, but everyone is driving 70 or faster. Why should I be the one who obeys the speed limit? So I had two alternatives: either fit in and go along with the others or go back to being a house painter. And who in my situation would have done that?”
The dramatic and surreal implosion of cycling’s house of lies is well-symbolized in the confrontation between Riis and the press that occurred months after the Festina drug scandal nearly destroyed the 1998 Tour.
It was also a departure from a decades-old, unspoken agreement that the media would not investigate doping, despite the occasional scandal, like the 1969 Merckx affair, in which he was thrown out of the Giro d'Italia because of doping allegations, as well as incautious remarks about the necessity of drug use from the five-time Tour champion Jacques Anquetil and other prominent riders.
The Tour was a European ritual, an integral part of the myth of France, and no one in a position to expose the culture of doping saw any point in spoiling the spectacle.
The legal tools for eradicating the Tour’s doping culture actually have existed for more than 40 years. France passed its first anti-doping law in 1965 to deal with amphetamine use, yet a third of a century went by before a left-wing French Minister of Youth and Sports, worried about the effects of drugs on public health, sent in the police to arrest riders and their handlers and expose systematic doping in the 1998 Tour.
Those raids and many since in France, Italy, Spain and Belgium should have produced regime change at the UCI and cultural change among the riders. But they have not. The UCI leadership, whose doping controls did not produce a single positive before the disaster of the 1998 Tour, remained in office. What’s more, average rider speed has increased steadily since the introduction of (presumably) stricter drug-testing to prevent the use of blood-boosting drugs.
On average, the 50th-place finisher has not lost ground on the winner in the overall time standings since 1998. This would suggest widespread doping by virtually all racers, since the peloton is going faster, not slower. Higher-tech equipment and training methods can also improve times, but most experienced observers of the sport believe that a proven performance-enhancer like EPO has transformed the Tour since the early 1990s.
Thus, the UCI’s so-called doping controls have been inadequate or even fraudulent, depending on how one views the integrity of its officials.
Just how deep the corruption in elite cycling has been becomes even clearer when we consider the following riddle: Just who won the 1996 Tour, now that Riis has admitted to doping?
Eddy Risch / AP
1997 Tour de France champion Jan Ullrich was kicked out of the 2006 Tour over doping allegations. He has denied using performance-enhancing drugs.
Finishing third in 1996 was popular French rider Richard Virenque. At his trial in October 2000, Virenque confessed to doping at the 1998 Tour as a member of the compromised Festina team. At the trial Virenque described the mentality that facilitates lying about doping among many riders: “We don’t say doping; we say we’re preparing for the race. To take drugs is to cheat. As long as the person doesn’t test positive, they’re not taking drugs.”
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