Can London give Tour a shot in the arm?

From William Fotheringham, The Guardian
With the Tour de France starting in London in less than four weeks a highly placed member of the company that organises the race asked me recently how the sport’s doping problem is playing on this side of the Channel. The organisers have good cause to wonder, although they would not admit to worry: if the London start does not draw the public, or if there is another major doping scandal in the run-up, the Tour will be all the harder to sell to major cities and sponsors.

On this side of la Manche, however, the question is phrased differently. The success of the London start is taken as a given, but cycling aficionados are wondering why they should afford the event any sporting credibility at all. After all, why invest any emotion when the victor may test positive for a banned substance – as last year’s winner Floyd Landis did – or decide that, 10 years on, he will confess to years of drug use, as the 1996 winner Bjarne Riis did recently?

Worryingly, neither the driving force behind the Tour’s arrival in the capital, the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, nor the head of the organisers, Christian Prudhomme, was able to offer convincing answers. The mayor’s response was in essence that history did not matter, which missed the point entirely: Landis’s positive test or Riis’s confession cannot be seen as isolated incidents. They have to be put in the context of 10 years of drug scandals, police investigations, allegations and fatuous denial.

Prudhomme, for his part, maintained that because the organisers do not want doping and the Tour is a great event its followers should take it seriously. Both are fair points: the men who run the Tour began to sound warning notes over an impending drugs crisis before the blazers who run the sport, while the Tour’s backdrop remains unmatchable, the athletic challenge it offers always immense and always absorbing.

There are answers, however, and some of them came last week at a business park in Hertfordshire. The American, Bob Stapleton, has been given the task of cleaning up the T-Mobile team that invested millions in Riis and another fallen idol, Jan Ullrich.

Realising that their investment in cycling could damage their image, T-Mobile have moved rapidly from hands-off to hands-on. The riders are vetted, questioned closely about their ethical approach and rigorously blood tested. When the tests offer doubtful results, as with last year’s Tour stage winner Serhiy Honchar, the cyclist is suspended pending further analysis and may eventually be sacked.

The aim is to create a culture where doping is unacceptable, and it was only legitimate to ask Stapleton why he has stuck with members of his team management who had doped themselves. His answer was that poachers make the best gamekeepers.

Stapleton is calling for many things that make sense: a united front on anti-doping from organisers, teams and the governing body, plus a rigorous anti-doping programme including DNA testing. There is every incentive with a wave of sponsorship contracts up for renewal in 2008.

The other reason to afford the Tour a little faith came on Sunday from Grenoble where a product of the British Olympic system, Bradley Wiggins, won the opening time trial in the Dauphiné Libéré stage race. Wiggins abhors drugs and is proud to say so. He’s a fan of his sport and like many fans he sometimes contemplates going elsewhere as one drug scandal follows another. The argument, “one doped, all doped” is easily thrown at the Tour but it can be turned on its head: if Wiggins and other cyclists who merit belief – such as the young Briton Mark Cavendish – can win clean, so can others. Just think carefully which ones they may be.

Photograph courtesy of EuroSport, who will be showing the Tour de France live every day

The article is from The Guardian. Read the column in full by clicking here

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