Thursday, July 05, 2007

Time for the Tour de France (or Farce)

The Tour de France an annual right of summer passage in Europe is set to begin Saturday in of all places London, England. In what superstitious people believe could be the luckiest day of the century – 07/07/07. The organizers of The Tour de France will settle for a day away from the headlines the Tour that the disgraced winner of the 2006 Tour American Floyd Landis brought Tour organizers and the sport of cycling following last year’s event.

On July 27, 2006 the Phonak Cycling Team announced that Floyd Landis, the declared winner of the 2006 Tour, tested positive in a drug test given to him after Stage 17. He tested positive for an abnormally high ratio of the hormone testosterone to epitestosterone during Stage 17 of the race.

On the same day the allegations were made public, Landis denied doping in order to win the 2006 Tour de France. Landis' personal doctor later revealed the test had found a ratio of 11:1 in Landis' blood; the permitted ratio is 4:1. On July 31, 2006 The New York Times reported that tests on Landis' sample reveal some synthetic testosterone. Soon thereafter the sport of cycling experienced a full frontal assault rocking the sport to its foundation –leaving a sport and an event at the edge of the abyss.

The Landis debacle was the latest in a series of doping related incidents that have plagued professional cycling and in particular the sports most important event. On May 25, 2007, Danish rider Bjarne Riis from the former Team Telekom announced that he had used doping and EPO from 1993 to 1998, including 1996 when he won the Tour. Bjarne Riis announced this at a press meeting the day after several former team members of his, including Erik Zabel and Brian Holm had admitted to using doping during the 1990s.

The 1998 Tour de France, dubbed the "Tour of Shame", is the most scandal-ridden modern Tour. On July 8, 1998, a major scandal erupted after French Customs arrested Willy Voet, one of the soigneurs for the Festina cycling team, for the possession of illegal prescription drugs, including narcotics, erythropoietin (EPO), growth hormones, testosterone, and amphetamines (Voet later described many common doping practices in his book, Massacre à la Chaîne). On July 23, 1998, French police raided several team's hotels and found doping products in the possession of the TVM team. As news of the police action spread among the riders during the seventeenth stage of the Tour, they staged a "sit-down strike". After mediation by Jean-Marie Leblanc, the Director of the Tour, police agreed to limit the most heavy-handed tactics and the riders agreed to continue. Many riders and teams had already abandoned the race and only 111 riders completed the stage. In a 2000 criminal trial, it became clear that the management and health officials of the Festina team had deliberately organized doping within the team. Richard Virenque, a top Festina rider, finally confessed at the trial after being ridiculed for maintaining that if he was doping he was somehow not consciously aware of it ("à l'insu de mon plein gré").

In the years following the Festina scandal, anti-doping measures were put into effect by race organizers and the UCI, including more frequent testing of riders and new tests for blood doping transfusions and EPO use. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was also created to help aid governments in anti-doping.

Evidence of doping persisted and in 2004 a new wave of credible doping allegations came forth. In January, Philippe Gaumont, a rider with the Cofidis team, told investigators and the press that doping with steroids, human growth hormone, EPO, and amphetamines was endemic to the team. In June, British cyclist David Millar, also of Cofidis, and reigning time trial World Champion, was detained by French police. His apartment was searched and two used EPO syringes were found. Finally, Jesus Manzano, a Spanish rider then recently dismissed by the Kelme team, told Madrid sports newspaper AS in bitter tones and lurid detail how he had been forced by his former team to take banned substances and how they had taught him to evade detection. The Kelme team itself was ultimately a casualty of the disclosures, which Manzano judged to be “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

Doping controversy has surrounded seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong for some time, although there has never been evidence sufficient for him to be sanctioned by any sports authority. In part, the suspicion has arisen from his association with Italian physician Michele Ferrari, who has confessed to prescribing doping agents to athletes. There have been allegations by former assistant, Mike Anderson, that Armstrong used Androstenine.

This resulted in a law suit against Anderson and a counter suit against Armstrong. [6] In late August 2005, one month after Lance Armstrong's seventh consecutive Tour victory, the French sports newspaper ‘‘L'Équipe’’ claimed to have uncovered evidence that Armstrong had used EPO in the 1999 Tour de France.

The claim was based on testing of archived urine samples by the French National Laboratory for Doping Detection (LNDD) for research purposes. Armstrong denied using EPO, and the UCI did not sanction him because of the lack of a duplicate sample. The UCI has confirmed that it was its own lead doctor Mario Zorzoli who in fact leaked the 15 forms tying Armstrong to the positive tests to L'Équipe. In the same year, Armstrong tested positive for a glucocorticosteroid hormone. Armstrong explained he had used an external "cortisone" ointment in order to treat a saddle sore and produced a prescription for it. The amount detected was well below the "positive" threshold and was consistent with the amount that would be used for a topical skin cream, but UCI rules require that prescriptions be shown to sports authorities in advance of use.

Armstrong survived cancer and went on to win seven consecutive Tour’s before retiring after the 2005 Tour opening the door for Floyd Landis – an athlete suffering from osteonecrosis, deterioration in the ball joint of his right hip stemming from diminished blood supply and constricted blood vessels caused by scar tissue. The original injury that led to the formation of the scar tissue was a femoral neck fracture sustained in a bicycle crash during a training ride near his Southern California home in October 2002. Landis kept the ailment secret from his teammates, rivals, and the media until an announcement made while the 2006 Tour was underway. This same ailment also affected former multi-sport athlete Bo Jackson and American football player Brett Favre. In winning the 2006 Tour America and the sport of cycling had its heir apparent to Lance Armstrong – a superman who overcame impossible odds to capture one of the greatest endurance events in sports.

From the day his own racing team announced their “champion” had tested positive Landis proclaimed his innocence. Landis has claimed that he is not guilty of using banned performance-enhancing drugs.

His initial claims -- “We will explain to the world why this is not a doping case, but a natural occurrence” and that the testosterone in his body was “natural and produced by my own organism.”

Doubt was cast on Landis' claims on August 1, 2006, when the New York Times reported that, according to a source at the UCI, Landis' urine test had revealed synthetic testosterone in his body.

Landis and his spokespeople vainly suggested a variety of reasons, for his positive drug test. They’ve included: naturally high testosterone, drinking alcohol, dehydration, thyroid medication, and a conspiracy against him. His defense now places emphasis on across the board criticisms of LNDD's methodology and execution.

Landis has suggested, "There are multiple reasons why this could have happened, other than what they're saying ... there are possibly hundreds of reasons why this test could be this way."

The variety of explanations offered up by Landis provided fodder for many skeptical columns by sports journalists and inspiration for satirists such as late-night national TV show host David Letterman, who presented the "Top 10 Floyd Landis Excuses" on his show.

More than a few reputable experts have suggested Landis' assertions have no basis whatsoever for merit. Prof. Christiane Ayotte, director of Montreal's anti-doping laboratory, said that "In 25 years of experience of testing testosterone ... such a huge increase in the level of testosterone cannot be accepted to come from any natural factors." David Black, a forensic toxicologist for Nashville-based Aegis Sciences, said, "There are not hundreds of plausible explanations. If the tests were so unreliable that there were hundreds of possible reasons, there would be no point in performing the tests."

Landis later backtracked from some of the assertions, saying, "The whisky idea was not mine and the dehydration was a theory from the lawyers I hired in Spain to represent me".

On September 7, 2006, Landis was televised on San Diego's NBC affiliate announcing at a La Jolla fundraiser that information in the lab report could exonerate him. He stated that more details would be announced, perhaps as early as the next day. On September 8, 2006, Landis' attorney announced that he would formally request that the case be dropped on the grounds LNDD's 370 page report revealed inconsistencies in the way the samples were handled.

Officially Floyd Landis is still the winner of the 2006 Tour de France. Landis is now without a cycling team, without an income from cycling and nearly out of the appeal process which when completed will certainly see Landis stripped of his Tour title and whatever remaining shreds of dignity he has left as an athlete. The long-term damage to the sport of cycling could lead to the death of professional cycling.

One of Europe’s longstanding cycling events the annual Championship of Zurich which had even survived World War II was last month by Swiss organizers unable to enlist new sponsors to replace backers scared by the doping scandal that ensnared the American rider Floyd Landis.

So was the Tour of Utah, which was abandoned after organizers failed to attract enough sponsors for the six-day, 500-mile race in July.

On May Day, riders in the Frankfurt Grand Prix sprinted by a grain silo owned by the German brewery Henninger, which backs the 46-year-old event. But organizers had struggled to court other sponsors.

“The sponsors all talked to us about the image of cycling because of all the doping affairs with Mr. Landis and Jan Ullrich,” Angelika Müller, a spokeswoman for the event told The New York Times. “We were only able to get them because they were contacts we had for many years.”

“Of course, the partners and sponsors of the Tour de France were concerned” about the issue of doping, said Laurent Lachaux, marketing director for the Amaury Sport Organization, which owns the Tour de France. “We carefully studied this with all our sponsors to see very frankly if staying was an issue for them or leaving was the best solution. We have been in discussions for four or five months with the top group. Some of them are saying yes, some are carefully studying the future, but none have actually said no.”

According to a New York Times report: IFM, a sports research company based in Germany that measures sponsorship impact, calculates that cycling has plunged as a marketing investment since the start of the 2007 season in March. The early season included four pro tour events: Paris-Nice, the Tirreno-Adriatico and Milano-Sanremo races in Italy and the Ronde van Vlaanderen in Belgium.

According to IFM, three of those races suffered a drop in total live audiences with the 91-year-old Belgian tour faring the worst with a 77 percent decline from a year earlier.

That drop depressed the worth of cycling sponsorships, which are valued at about 10 percent of the cost of buying traditional advertising time in the same time slots, a spokesman for IFM, Jens Seeberger, said.

Tracking six major television markets in the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Britain, IFM found that television coverage of cycling events started to drop off after the Landis affair from almost eight and a half hours, to five and a half hours. With the start of the 2007 season, Spain and Italy dropped live coverage.

“Our advice is not to invest right now in cycling,” Mr. Seeberger said in the New York Times report. “The sport has to be clean. There’s a lot of negative news right now and it affects awareness and images.”

The sport of cycling has never attracted the kind of sponsorship money that flows to soccer, Formula One or America’s Cup sailing, where big companies like BMW and Oracle are backing a sailing challenge costing more than 150 million euros ($202 million). But large companies still find cycling appealing because costs are so much lower. In the top sponsorship tier for the Tour de France, four companies are each paying yearly an average of 4 million to 5 million euros.

“I think the problem is not so much doping,” John Eustice, a former cyclist and United States pro champion who promotes and organizes tours told The New York Times. “It’s the fact that the people who run cycling let it turn into such a circus. I think cycling is courageous to fight in a clumsy way, but they seem like a sport that no one controls.”

Hubert Genieys, who is in charge of sponsorships for Nestlé Aquarel told The New York Times his company hasn’t quite closed the door on cycling sponsorship but the sports image had better undergo a remarkable turnabout in the immediate future.

“The question is, Do we continue?” Mr. Genieys said. “That decision has not been taken and will not be until 2008 when we have had time to see the new approach. If we have all the guarantees after 2009 that cycling will be safely on its way to rejuvenate its image and to eradicate the drug issue, we will probably stay in the boat.”

The issues concerning why athletes use performance enhancement drugs clearly has reached the crossroads. Be it the allegations closely aligned with Barry Bonds pursuit of Hank Aaron’s 755 career Major League Baseball home run record, or the allegations now being directly linked to the tragic murder/suicide linked to late WWE superstar Chris Benoit, to the damage he allegations and charges directed at Floyd Landis for the last 12 months its as clear as the dawn of a perfect sunny summer day – the system is broken and needs to be fixed.

It will take years, probably decades to fix what’s wrong, it may indeed be beyond repair and in the last year Floyd Landis has taken the sport of cycling down the sewer with the many allegations and charges directed at him. That’s Floyd Landis lasting legacy – a key role in helping to destroy the sport of cycling.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The New York Times and Wikipedia

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