The Tour de France's reputation is at an all-time low. After a string of doping scandals involving riders in this year's race, and the withdrawal of German televison stations, the last straw came Wednesday when the race leader, Danish cyclist Michael Rasmussen, was forced to withdraw.
Rasmussen, who was expected to win the race on Sunday, was forced to pull out by his sponsor Rabobank because of "incorrect" information that he had given about his whereabouts. A witness said he had seen Rasmussen, who had missed random drug tests, in Italy when he had claimed to be in Mexico.
"We cannot say that Rasmussen cheated, but his flippancy and his lies on his whereabouts had become unbearable," Tour director Christian Prudhomme told the Associated Press. Rasmussen, who had been booed by fans at the start of Wednesday's stage, told the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad that his career was "ruined."
The withdrawal will cast a shadow over the rest of the race, and the victory ride through the heart of Paris on Sunday is likely to be a somber one. French newspapers called Thursday for the Tour to be stopped after the latest news, and it is unclear how the sport will recover from this year's string of scandals. Jean-Francois Lamour, vice president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, suggested Wednesday that the sport be taken out of the Olympic Games.
Commentators writing in Germany's main papers Thursday show exasperation and call for radical measures to reform the sport.
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Christian Prudhomme may use strong words but he is weak when it comes to decision making. The director of the Tour de France is demanding an 'ethical revolution' after recent doping cases during the Tour and deplores the 'Russian roulette' that cyclists are playing as they resort to ever more disgusting and dangerous methods of manipulation But Prudhomme has rejected the obvious step of breaking off this Tour de Farce because it has become a sporting, medical and economic fiasco. The field is to ride to Paris. Prudhomme wants to save his product and avoid having to declare bankruptcy. After all, the Tour de France is primarily a business asset. But one shudders to imagine this year's crop of riders carrying out the traditional victory lap on the Champs-Elysees. Would the riders not have to at least dismount in front of the Arc de Triomphe and push their bikes past it in shame?"
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"We like hearing the fairy tale about the clean sport which only needs to be purged of a few black sheep. But we do not believe it. There is something hypocritical about all the indignation over doping. Ever since antiquity, audiences have been demanding super-human feats from athletes. The sponsors, too, are not particularly happy about riders who are clean but pedal along unobtrusively in the middle of the pack. The professionals get an income commensurate to their efforts only if they ride right at the front -- which is hardly possible now without a bit of pharmaceutical help. Doping is not an attack on sport. It arises out of the interests and constraints of all the parties involved. The rhetoric of fairness collides hard against this reality."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"For the sponsor T-Mobile, the time has come to turn its back on professional cycling. After decades of systematic doping, perhaps professional cycling cannot be clean unless everyone involved in the sport is replaced. The Tour de France tests positive -- in the field of the 160 riders, you will not find many who are free of inconsistencies. One cannot expect the athletes themselves to clean it up."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Anyone looking to revive professional cycling first has to smash the old system. They need to examine bank accounts, cap state subsidies and cancel TV sponsorship. They need to employ measures like those used in the fight against the arms and drug trades. Evil will continue to be found everywhere where large sums of money are at stake. But it would be fatal not to carry out the fight -- because some young dopers would be very glad to not have to ruin themselves."
-- David Gordon Smith, 2:30 p.m. CET