Drug scandals have become such a regular feature of the Tour de France that surely someday soon we will find biochemists and forensic urologists added to the race’s television commentator teams.
The last several Tours had wide swaths of riders caught in doping scandals before and during the race. Two years ago the Tour’s strongest riders never started the race after a major doping scandal, and even after the race began, Floyd Landis’ victory was undercut by the presence of elevated testosterone levels. Last year Michael Rasmussen, the race leader, was removed by his team mid-race over his administrative failure to account for his whereabouts months earlier (so that he could be summoned for drug testing if needed) after he was reportedly seen training in the Dolomites during a period he had claimed he was visiting his wife’s family in Mexico.
In last year’s tour, five riders and two teams were removed from the race due to irregularities in some way linked to drug testing. Last year’s race favorite, Alexander Vinokourov, injured both knees early in the tour, but after he staged a remarkable comeback, tests found evidence of blood doping. Vinokourov and his entire team, Astana (sponsored by Kazakhstan’s national railway), were expelled from the Tour to demonstrate a no nonsense, no tolerance posture towards doping.
Team Astana cleaned house after the Tour. They fired Vinokourov, and replaced their coach with team Discovery’s former coach Johan Bruyneel who began hiring a series of riding stars to rebuild the team. This new team featured last year’s tour winner, the gifted Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador, American hopeful Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Klöden. All three are considered possible champions in this year’s tour. Bruyneel’s reputation brought enough strong riders that talk of an Astana-dominated Tour became widespread. In an era of diminished French dominance for an event so historically marked with nationalist pride, the prospect of such a super team seemed a further blow to a nation that now seems to most significantly strive to win the Tour state falling on Bastille Day. But the French found a way to diminish such a powerful team.
A month and a half ago, the corporate entity that oversees the Tour de France, the Amaury Sport Organization (ASO), declared that the Astana team would not be allowed to ride in this year’s tour. On the surface this move was designed to show the ASO as a stringent body that will not tolerate any degree of doping, but this radical shift towards guilt by association not only targets what would have been the most formidable team in the post-Armstrong tour, it undercuts dynamics of trust between teammates, as individual violations now stand to ruin the careers of all.
The reasons for excluding Astana might seem reasonable, but given that the team’s coaches, management and top riders have been replaced, beyond the name, there little that remains of the team involved in last year’s doping scandal. The banning of Astana punishes a team that adopted extremely resolute measures by bringing in new management and replacing the core elements of an old team associated with scandal. The ASO should have rewarded such movement, not punished it.
Because Alberto Contador’s Astana contract does not allow him to leave the team caught in this ban, if the ASO doesn’t reverse itself, this year’s Tour will ride without last year’s strong champion; and without Leipheimer and Klöden, the Tour will be missing the strongest team in the field. The Tour’s loss of Contador is huge. Last year’s tour showed him to be a young daring miracle climber with stamina and wit. In the Pyrenees he wore down other riders with a style of attack that toyed with opponents by chasing them down and pushing them to their breaking point in the midst of intense climbs.
To a casual observer there might be an appearance that bicycling is a sport dominated by individual stars, but in truth it is a team sport in which individual performances are achieved through the sacrifices of collective support. Outstanding riders are backed by a team of uncelebrated lieutenants, domestiques, and specialists who support the heroics of their lead rider; there could be no Armstrong, Merckx, or Indurian without teammates leading attacks and defenses. The ASO’s use of collective punishment will soon erode the trust between teammates as pressures to snitch on teammates suspected of doping will increase. Collective punishment not only punishes innocent team members who have done nothing wrong, but it rots the team camaraderie needed for bicycle teams to compete.
This new level of collective punishment moves the responsibility for individual doping from the individuals to team names. The consequences of individual doping are now apparently to be shared by all — even to be shared by those who weren’t even on the team when violations occurred. Imagine if the baseball commissioner decided that he was cracking down on steroids by declaring that any team on which José Canseco played would be banned from league play for a year. Or imagine the commissioner declaring that the Yankees were banned from league play for a year because Roger Clemens’ prominence in the Mitchell Report. Baseball fans need not worry: serious testing of American professional athletes won’t happen anytime soon. The resulting corporate losses of such tests would be too catastrophic.
Obviously doping is a problem, but collective punishment is no solution. Doping in bicycling is prevalent because th sport is so gruelling and the demands of the sport and its schedules press riders to take shortcuts in recovering from injuries and exhaustion. There is no reason to believe professional bicyclists are doping at levels beyond other professional athletes. Professional bicycle racing remains far and away the most tested sport on earth. If American football, basketball, or baseball players were subjected to such scrutiny, these professional sports would collapse.
The ASO must reconsider the exclusion of Astana. Their decision to administer such forms of collective punishment does nothing to prevent doping in cycling, and by removing such strong team members not individually accused of wrong doing it undermines the integrity of the sport.
DAVID PRICE is an avid bicycle commuter who only races cyclists who don’t know they’re racing him. He is the author of Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War, will be published next month by Duke University Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org