Ausgabe 30/2007

The Golden Shot Has Professional Cycling Doped itself to Death?

Any remaining illusions about Germany's continued support for professional cycling were shattered when T-Mobile team member Patrik Sinkewitz tested positive for doping last week. With broadcasters and sponsors turning their backs on the sport, the question is: How credible are other sports?

By and

T-Mobile Cyclist Patrik Sinkewitz during a medical examination before the start of the Tour de France in London.

T-Mobile Cyclist Patrik Sinkewitz during a medical examination before the start of the Tour de France in London.

Brian Holm is leaning against the T-Mobile team's bus, taking advantage of a small patch of shade on a Thursday morning in Marseilles, his sunglasses pushed up onto his head. He gazes into the distance, a serious man with a gaunt face. What now, he is probably wondering?

It's the day after Holm received the news that the "A" sample of a blood test taken from team member Patrik Sinkewitz showed a sharply elevated testosterone level. It appears that Sinkewitz may have used testosterone, a classic performance-enhancing drug that is easy to detect. Holm, a Dane, is one of the sporting directors who was there on June 8, when Sinkewitz and four other riders were training for the Tour de France's grueling stretches through the Pyrenees and doping inspectors from Germany appeared on the scene and left with sealed blood and urine samples. Sinkewitz showed no sign of agitation, Holm says quietly, looking down at the gravel parking lot, none whatsoever.

Then he says: "If it's true, he should give up immediately. Otherwise he'll be dealing with this for years to come. The longer he waits the tougher it'll be."

Holm, 44, is worried about his own job. Indeed, the news that T-Mobile may withdraw its sponsorship has everyone on the team worried. But when he mentions Sinkewitz and his future, Holm isn't really talking about the current repercussions of the positive testosterone test. Holm was a professional cyclist himself for 13 years. In 2002, four years after the end of his career, he wrote his autobiography, devoting an entire chapter to his own doping experiences. Coming clean was a relief, he says now. He was later diagnosed with intestinal cancer, which he survived. His brush with cancer and his doping history taught him that it's better not to ignore unpleasant truths for too long.

Few former professional cyclists are as introspective about life in the saddle as Holm. When he retired, he says, it "was as if I had been released from prison. I really didn't know how to do anything else but cycle, not even operate a washing machine." Listening to Holm tell his story, it isn't difficult to imagine why some professional cyclists behave as if they were living in a parallel universe.

Sinkewitz must have known that he could be tested at any time. He knew that under the terms of his contract, even a clear suspicion of doping would mean having to pay back a lot of money to his sponsor. Shortly before the Tour, he also signed a statement by the International Cycling Union (UCI) stipulating that he would forfeit one year's salary if he was caught doping. By signing this statement, Sinkewitz has inextricably linked his doping with personal financial ruin.

Either he must have been unbelievably naïve, or he felt completely secure, for one reason or another -- or perhaps both.

100 Years of Doping

Holm is part of a project to clean up a dirty sport. It is a difficult project, given that a doping culture has pervaded professional cycling for the past century. And it is a struggle that will require a great deal of energy and patience if it is to succeed.

But patience is in short supply these days. By last Wednesday, shortly after 11 a.m., when press agencies were broadcasting the news of Sinkewitz's positive doping test around the world, Holm had a feeling that the project could soon come to an end. Within hours German networks ARD and ZDF had announced plans to cut their live coverage of this year's Tour de France. At the same time, Christian Frommert, T-Mobile's sponsorship spokesman, made it clear that his employer was not ruling out withdrawing its support for professional cycling.

The next day Adidas, which had been spending roughly €500,000 ($690,826) a year on the T-Mobile team, announced that it planned to get out. In Stuttgart, the city council is debating what to do about the cycling world championships, which are scheduled to be held there in September, as German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble threatens to cancel the event altogether. Politician Peter Danckert, a Social Democrat and chairman of the sporting committee in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, is openly questioning whether the government should continue providing support for the sport.

Then, on Thursday night, the announcement came that mountain specialist Michael Rasmussen had been removed from the Danish national team because he had failed on several occasions to report his training locations to doping inspectors. It was reason enough to disqualify him from the tour. Rasmussen, realizing that he was on his own, decided to enter the race anyway, defending his yellow jersey in the 12th leg of the race.

"Cyling Is Dead"

"The doping issue," says Hartmut Zastrow, head of the Cologne-based market research company Sport + Markt, "has spiraled out of control. Cycling is dead as far as sponsors are concerned, at least for now."

Professional cycling has dug its own grave. There is nothing left to disclose, no unresolved mystery and no room left for illusions. Everyone has known about it for years and everyone has chosen to look the other way. But it's an attitude that can no longer be accepted. "We want a clean sport," says Nikolaus Brender, chief editor for German public broadcaster ZDF. In other words, without a clean sport there can be no television coverage. And because there was something of a purist nature to the German TV networks' decision last Wednesday to cancel their live Tour de France coverage, it didn't take long before the discussion had shifted from cycling alone to sports in general. Indeed, it was the week the sports world lost its innocence.

Sports is an entertainment industry, generating billions in revenues with its sagas of winners and losers. But despite this commercial nature, the public still needs to believe in the innocence of sports to be able to celebrate its winners and sympathize with its losers. Holding fast to this belief in innocence has become a challenge in recent years. The coverage of the first few days of the Tour, when reporters attempted to make up for all the critical remarks they have been holding back in years past, revealed just how difficult it is to broadcast sports on television without being able to fall back on its emotional essence, its fairy tales and its tragedies.

And now the positive results of one cyclist's doping test have shattered those illusions. Sports has ceased to be sports or even entertainment. Instead, sports has suddenly become economic crime, drug abuse, fraud, the subject of debate in the media and the politics of symbolism.

An Extremely Difficult Undertaking

But what actually happened in the past week?

Not much, really. A member of a team fighting to clean up the sport appears to have been caught doping, which could in fact be seen as the successful outcome of a consistent campaign against doping. This is the view taken by the people at T-Mobile, for lack of any more convincing arguments. But even Michael Vesper, the president of the German Olympic Committee, who is not exactly opposed to the networks' decision to cancel Tour coverage, says: "If we don't discover anything during random testing, critics accuse the national anti-doping agency of not doing its job. But if we do find something, they immediately want to shut down the entire sport."

Team T-Mobile has promised to clean up the sport, but it may have been overly ambitious.

Team T-Mobile has promised to clean up the sport, but it may have been overly ambitious.

The real answer is that too much has happened in recent months, and that all that was missing was something big enough to set off public outrage. Belgian cycling masseur Jef D'hont and professional cyclist Jörg Jaksche broke through the Omertà, cycling's code of silence, when they shared their experiences in its shadowy world with SPIEGEL. Bert Dietz, Rolf Aldag, Christian Henn, Udo Bölts and Erik Zabel, all former members of the Telekom team, publicly confessed their sins. Public officials and cycling associations were unable to clear up the affair surrounding Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes. Spanish police arrested the doctor in 2006 after discovering large quantities of doping agents and units of stored blood in his laboratory. His doping network has since been linked to a number of professional riders. The role German cyclist Jan Ullrich may have played in it remains unresolved to this day. German television networks spent weeks debating how to approach the Tour de France, ultimately concluding that all it would take for them to pull out from the sport would be one more doping case.

Ironically, the end comes at a time when the doping system in cycling is in fact in decline. With Fuentes's network destroyed, this year's Tour is presumably a relatively clean event. With no single rider or team dominating the field, riders can very well find themselves at the head of the pack one day and trailing the next. Of course, some riders are probably still doping. Despite improvements, professional cycling is still not a clean sport. And a few months are hardly enough to erase a century of doping from the heads of riders, coaches, doctors and team managers. Team T-Mobile's attempt to come clean reveals what a difficult, if not impossible, undertaking this is.

  • Part 1: Has Professional Cycling Doped itself to Death?
  • Part 2

© DER SPIEGEL 30/2007
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