Tour de France Doping Scandal Beer, Whiskey, Testosterone and Misery
US cyclist Floyd Landis says his high testosterone may have come from his pre-race drinking binge. Not likely. The sport is so infested with cheats and frauds that it might never be able to clean up its act.
It was the very picture of misery. Floyd Landis hardly looked up as he scaled the French Alps toward the stage finish at La Toussuire -- the yellow jersey, drenched in sweat, clung to his body. For all his suffering, Landis, 30, could have been a hobby cyclist.
But it also was the image of hope. Hope that there would be no more rampant doping. Landis' achievement on that 16th stage of the Tour de France looked honest. He couldn't take the strain. This was no superman who never weakened along the entire 3,657-kilometer stretch of the month-long tour; no Iron Man who took the mountain passes over the Pyrenees and Alps in his stride. The sport of cycling appeared to have regained some credibility.
But it didn't take long for the hope to fade; indeed, it lasted about one night. The next day, Landis left the competition in the dust. Unstoppable, he almost effortlessly ascended some of the most difficult mountains on the tour and when he arrived in Morzine after 200 kilometers in searing heat, he punched the air. He hopped easily off the bike, not a hint of the disaster one day earlier. Instead he was back in the running to win the race. "I have not seen such a feat in 20 years," marvelled tour director Christian Prudhomme.
Desperation or calculation?
Today Prudhomme knows he was marvelling at a possible fraud. Only one week after his feat, Landis became the latest professional cyclist to come under suspicion of having doped --- and he may become the first person in the history of the Tour de France to have his victory taken away. Analysts in Paris found an excessive amount of the sexual hormone testosterone in a test of his A-sample done in Morzine. Results from his B-sample should be made available this week.
Only a mix of desperation and ice-cold calculation could have led this son of Mennonites from Farmersville, Pennsylvania to use such an easily detected substance. He wanted to win the Tour at all costs - and he needed to make up about eight minutes between himself and the front-runner in the 17th stage -- the last stage in the Alps -- in order to preserve his chances.
Accept defeat, or cheat? Evidence suggests that Landis may have chosen fraud - and delivered the next low blow to a sport becoming increasingly accustomed to doping scandals -- and elaborate excuses to cover them up. Victors of the last three major cycling races - the Giro d'Italia and the Spanish Vuelta in addition to the Tour de France - have been accused of doping.
Landis, during a press conference last Friday, denied having taken performance-enhancing drugs. He said "two beers and at least four whiskeys" had caused his testosterone level to rise. Landis, in other words, crushed the world's cycling elite a night after a binge.
Not likely. In no other sport does one find the impudent, concerted fraud that cycling has been infested with. Only last May, Spanish police uncovered a drug ring closely linked to cycling; the investigator said the ring had 58 racers as clients, including Ivan Basso and Germany's cycling star, Jan Ullrich. After the "Operación Puerto" doping case, sponsors, race promoters, team heads, media, anti-doping activists and officials discussed whether and how to rescue the sport of cycling. No one doubts any longer that cycling is contaminated with drugs. The Spanish daily El País even prophesied that the Landis case means "a death sentence for the sport of cycling."
A testosterone comeback
That Landis got caught is surprising enough -- hardly anyone is netted in the obligatory tests. Athletes bent on manipulation have criminal doctors and biochemists working with them - and international networks provide athletes with anything that the pharmaceutical industry has to offer and at levels just under the permissible values.
The ability to administer precision doses has led to a testosterone comeback in the doping scene. Even the doyen of international anti-doping research, the late Manfred Donike, who died in 1995, was fascinated with how athletes "pop these things the night before the competition, in order to be in tip-top shape on the next day." During training, this wonder drug promotes muscle build-up and shortens regeneration time. During a competition, it serves another function: It increases an athlete's drive, the urge to fight.
In order to identify testosterone, Donike developed an indirect testing method: Investigators measure the relationship of testosterone to epitestosterone in urine. In the normal male, this relationship lies between 1:1 and 2:1. In order to take into account individual variations present in top athletes, cycling associations settled on a maximum value of 4:1. Anyone who crosses that boundary is considered to have used supplements. With Landis, the A-test supposedly showed a value of 11:1 - a completely astonishing result, even for an athlete who can hold his alcohol.
The doping authorities of former East Germany (also known as the German Democratic Republic or GDR) fiddled around for years with new possibilities of manipulation aimed at neutralizing Donike's investigative method. Their tremendous knowledge of fraud found new life under capitalism. US chemist Patrick Arnold of Illinois said he studied German documents carefully. Together with Victor Conte of California, Arnold sold hormone preparations through his firm Balco until both were exposed. Today, the name Balco is synonymous with the greatest doping scandal in US history. One of Balco's most ambitious plans was to refine the old GDR doping method by using testosterone. On one hand they tested urine in private laboratories to see how fast certain top athletes metabolized doping preparations. On the other hand, they developed new creations like "The Cream," a gel with testosterone and epitestosterone, which Balco passed off to its clients as a fail-safe trick. On top of that, they presented a menu of testosterone products, epo (erythropoietin) and growth hormone.
"You've got to have a heart"
So why did Landis get caught like an amateur? The high testosterone ratio suggests it was no accident- as might happen if a patch or a gel on his scrotum had a greater effect than planned. It is much more likely that Landis, after his disastrous Stage 16, took something like Andriol, a popular testosterone supplement also known as "Mexican Bean" and normally used only in training. It would hardly be the first time an athlete ignored all reason to enhance performance.
Whether or not it turns out to be true that Landis took testosterone, cycling is in deep trouble. No one believes any more that the sport can get the doping problem under control on its own. The field is too full of criminals, liars and cover-up artists.
Take the case of Richard Virenque. The 36-year-old Frenchman was deeply involved in the first big doping scandal of the Tour de France in 1998 when his team Festina was uncovered as doping its riders. Virenque denied it for a full two years -- only when the burden of proof was overwhelming did he yield a tearful confession. But after only seven months' suspension, he was back on the team.
While he no longer races, Virenque remains a presence on the tour. He works as a TV commentator, and an organization that finances heart operations for poverty-stricken children uses his mug on their advertisements. On life-sized posters, Virenque wears a jersey bearing the words: "To win the Tour, you've got to have a heart."
The hypocrisy of this sport also is demonstrated by the performance of Hagen Bossdorf, head of sports for one of Germany's leading television stations. In his nightly-news commentary last Thursday, he played the role of truth-seeker. "The TV broadcasters must stand by their right to cease reporting on cycling races when doping has been positively determined," said the TV man. "It is difficult to bear the broadcast of a sport so corrupt that journalists can no longer adequately judge the athletes' accomplishments."
Such comments represent something of a turn-around for Bossdorf. As a Tour de France commentator earlier in his career, Bossdorf preferred to rant about cheese, wine, and castles on the Loire than to talk about doping. He contributed to a pleasant autobiography of Jan Ullrich -- prohibited from racing in this year's tournament because of doping suspicions -- and moderated programs by Telekom, whose cycling team cooperated with ARD. And it was Hagen Bossdorf who together with ARD pushed a court case against the molecular biologist Werner Franke, the doping expert from Heidelberg who had accused him and ARD of being" part of the criminal business of cycling" and participants in "systematic lying" with their reporting on the sport. The trial ended with a settlement. Anyone may now suggest that ARD ignored and failed to discuss the topic of doping adequately.
Now, all of a sudden, everyone wants to be part of the solution. Last Wednesday, one day before Landis's positive test was made public, Rudolf Scharping sat with a gloomy, worried expression in the Salon Imperator of Hamburg's Park Hyatt hotel. The president of the Federation of German Cyclists was a guest before the Cyclassics race -- a traditional post-Tour criterion.
When asked about the Spanish doping scandal swirling around German star Ullrich, Scharping leaned forward and straightened out the microphone. "Thank God that happened before the race so there's a chance to recover from this terrible shock," said Scharping, a former German defense minister. "Something like that after the race would have been a total nightmare."
Now he has the nightmare.
The sport of cycling has now lost a whole generation of stars. Like Landis, Jan Ullrich probably will never again race professionally. By now, the International Cycling Union has viewed the 500-page investigation report from Spain and will send its analysis this week to the Swiss association, which issued Ullrich's license.
By late August at the latest, a disciplinary commission will release its verdict. It is "likely," says law professor and commission president Gerhard Walter, that Ullrich will be banned.
Pat McQuaid, president of the ICU, also is expecting a conviction. And if Ullrich and his attorneys should manage to fend this off, says the Irishman, "we will drag this to the International Court Of Arbitration For Sport."
Like Landis, Jan Ullrich is simply bad for business.