Sports

The Tour de shame

The sports world reels from new drug scandals

JAMES DEACON August 10 1998
Sports

The Tour de shame

The sports world reels from new drug scandals

JAMES DEACON August 10 1998

The Tour de shame

Sports

The sports world reels from new drug scandals

So much for racing. Twice during last week’s 17th stage of the 21-stage Tour de France, all 116 riders stopped and sat down on the road in mid-race. Later the same day, the competitors ripped off their jersey numbers—acts that rendered that stage unofficial—and coasted across the finish line in Aix-les-Bains in a pack. Along the way, French star Laurent Jalabert, the world’s top-ranked racer, announced he was fed up. “I can’t continue under these conditions, being treated like a criminal,” he told reporters, explaining why he and the rest of his ONCE team quit the race. The riders’ complaints? French police had been testing, interrogating and even jailing athletes, medical staff and coaches after discovering banned drugs in several teams’ gear. Swiss star Armin Meier was one of a handful of competitors who admitted to police they had used a performance-enhancing substance known as EPO to counter their exhaustion during the gruelling 3,877-km race. ‘Yes, I said that I had taken EPO, how I took it and why I took it,” Meier said, adding: “I’m just the victim of a system.”

On several fronts last week, international sport officials were losing the war against drugs. The defeatist tone, in fact, was set when International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch told a Spanish newspaper he was considering a more lenient approach to certain perfor% mance-enhancing substances. Then in ï France, more teams and riders were impli§ cated, further discrediting the world’s most ES prestigious cycling competition. In the Unit£ ed States, the International Amateur Athletic Federation suspended two prominent American athletes, sprinter Dennis Mitchell and shot-putter Randy Barnes, the worldrecord holder, for positive tests for testosterone and androstenedione, respectively. And at the World Basketball Championships in Athens, a Nigerian player was thrown out for using a banned stimulant. Casey Wade, director of drug-free sports at the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports in Gloucester, Ont., said the slew of positive tests were just scratching the surface. “I don’t think people should be overly surprised,” Wade said. “There are simply not enough effective drug-testing programs around the world.” The Tour scandal was certainly not a revelation—behind the scenes, EPO has been some cyclists’ drug of choice for a decade. It is a synthetic form of a hormone called

erythropoietin, which, when released by the kidneys, causes bone marrow cells to transform into red blood cells. The synthetic version was designed to fight anemia in patients who had suffered kidney failure, and helps athletes in endurance sports by increasing their red cell count, which in turn enables them to absorb more oxygen. In high doses,

though, EPO thickens the blood dangerously, and its misuse is linked to dozens of deaths among athletes. Until last month, there was no deterrent to using EPO: sport officials had yet to approve a reliable test for the substance.

But the police raids in France changed that, and they sent shock waves through the team camps. Going into the final weekend of the Tour, only 14 of the starting 21 teams were still racing towards the Aug. 2 finish on the Champs Elysées in Paris, and cycling authorities faced the realization that cleaning up the sport was the only way to polish the tarnished reputation of the Tour itself. “It will probably take years for the Tour to regain the grandeur it once had,” says Patrick Healy, executive director of the Canadian Cycling Association.

“And that’s too bad, because it’s a great race.” The IOC, meanwhile, was furiously backpeddling from Samaranch’s untimely remarks. Among other things, Samaranch was quoted in El Mundo as saying that the list of illegal substances should be reduced and that only drugs that endangered the health of athletes should be banned. The organization hurriedly announced it was convening a special board meeting on Aug. 20 in Lausanne, Switzerland, to investigate new tests for cheaters. That did little to soothe the outrage in the doping-control community over Samaranch’s comments. “This way of thinking is nonsense,” said Germany’s Wildor Hollmann, honorary president of the World Association for Sports Medicine. “That would be an unbelievable step backwards.” In North America, there was consternation over the announcement of Mitchell’s

positive test. It was conducted in early April, yet it wasn’t declared until after he had competed at last month’s Goodwill Games on the winning U.S. 4 x 100-m relay team. It may eventually mean that Canada, which finished second in the relay, could be awarded the gold medal. But Wade, among others, wonders why a test result that could have been confirmed in one week was instead concealed for more than three months. “It fundamentally breaches the rights of athletes who want to compete in a drug-free environment,” Wade says. “Just look at the other three guys on the U.S. relay team, who now stand to lose their gold medals.” For one week, at least, cheaters did not prosper.

JAMES DEACON