With the Tour de France due to begin in just five days, we look back at Ross Davies' report in the most recent edition of Overseas, which asks the question of how the public's perception of elite sport has changed given the accusations of doping that have tainted so many different disciplines.
In hindsight, the summer of 1998 had a whiff of destiny about it.
On a balmy summer’s night at the Stade de France in Paris on July 12, the French football team do the unthinkable and defeat Brazil in front of 70,000 raucous compatriots to win their first World Cup.
Fans party well into the night amidst a sea of tricolours. Les Bleus – containing players of Armenian, Senegalese, Basque and Algerian heritage – are lauded by President Jacques Chirac as a symbol of a “united France”. It was written in the stars, sportswriters romantically avow.
But over in Dublin that very same day, spirits are considerably more subdued. The Tour De France, only one day in, is embroiled in a scandal that will turn the sport of cycling on its head.
On July 8, before the peloton had even laid a tyre on the road, the masseur for the much-feted Festina team, Willie Voet, was arrested by police on the French-Belgian border. In his possession: anabolic steroids, growth hormones and masking agents. The fallout that follows in the subsequent days and weeks is as swift as it is explosive.
As the Tour moves across the Channel to Roscoff, and then onto Lorient and Plouay and Cholet, the local gendarmes become involved. The Festina team hotel is searched. On July 15, after the fourth stage, Eric Ryckaert, the team doctor is taken by police for questioning.
By July 18, it’s all over for Festina; they are expelled from the race for doping. The tour continues in calamitous fashion. Angry spectators vent their spleen, spitting and swearing at the riders. At one point, the peloton even stages a two-hour delay in Tarascon-sur-Ariege in protest at what riders see as unfair treatment from the media and spectators.
When Marco Pantani is eventually crowned winner on the Champs Elysees on August 2, the damage has been done. A cloud of suspicion hangs in the air. Sponsors have withdrawn. Reputations are in tatters. A French newspaper – which questions whether the event should be discontinued for good – coins the epithet “Tour de Shame”.
Looking back to that fateful summer of 20 years ago, it served to blow the lid off widespread doping in cycling. It had to happen, and what emerged from the wreckage of anger and disillusion was a clear inflection point: the sport had a serious drug problem.
It led to the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) the following year, and when the peloton sheepishly assembled itself again in the summer of 1999, it was dubbed by organisers as the Tour of Renewal.
1999 was also the same year a brash Texan named Lance Armstrong destroyed the field to win his first Tour – made all the more remarkable given the victor had only three years before been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and given a 50/50 chance of survival. His previous best finish had been 36th place in 1995.
We all know the next – or at least some of it. The so-called Tour of Renewal failed to usher in a new era of clean contest. Teams and their riders continued to dope with – in Armstrong’s case, especially – shocking impunity. Hydra-like, doping scandals have since multiplied rather than let up.
It’s not just cycling, of course. In recent years, evidence has come to light of state-sanctioned doping across Russian athletics. According to Dick Pound, WADA’s former head, football remains in “self-denial” about its own doping culture. In 2016, former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova was slapped with a two-year ban – later reduced – after failing a drugs test. The lists of accusations are long.
If seen as a game and cat of mouse between drug users and testers, the latter is several furlongs behind in catching its quarry. Some would even argue it’s an arms race they are destined to lose indefinitely.
“The athletes are definitely more savvy and more forward-looking in terms of what drugs might be available out there to help them win,” says Australian anti-doping expert Robin Parisotto.
“It’s been made easier for them by the fact that the testing agencies and sports federations have not really been committed to the cause. The excuse is always, ‘We don’t have the expertise, resources or money’. Well then, it’s implicit that they make those resources available and recruit the appropriate expertise, otherwise we’ll never get to the bottom of the problem.”
Paul Dimeo, senior lecturer in sports studies at the University of Stirling, and author of A History of Drug Use in Sport: 1876-1976, believes that there will always be a time lag between a performance-enhancing drug coming on the market, being used by athletes, and being identified by testers.
“It’s been the same kind of pattern since anti-doping efforts began in the 1960s,” he explains. “There’s actually a great kind of creativity – even entrepreneurship – in the desire to use new drugs. To be honest, I can’t see how that circle will ever be squared, or when we’re completely on top of it.”
Then there are even murkier areas. At the time of writing, Sir Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky remain under the uncomfortable glare of public scrutiny, after a parliamentary report into doping in the UK, suggested their use of therapeutic use exemptions (TUE) – in the form of triamcinolone, a steroid used to treat asthma – “crossed an ethical line”.
Technically speaking, Wiggins and Team Sky boss Sir David Brailsford did not break any WADA anti-doping rules, but with triamcinolone proven to improve power-to-weight ratio – vital for a cyclist – question marks remain as to whether Team Sky knowingly exploited a loophole to its gain.
While Wiggins claims he has been the victim of a smear campaign, other such as David Walsh, the Sunday Times journalist famous for helping take down Lance Armstrong, believe Team Sky to be guilty of cheating.
“Personally, in the case of Wiggins and Team Sky, I believe the intention was probably reasonable,” says Dimeo. “There are certain types of condition, such as asthma, which can be managed with certain types of medicines. Therefore, if it was a genuine case, then it seems like a reasonable response.
“But it does raise questions over TUEs. Even if it was inadvertent, a loophole has been exploited. The tricky element here is: why is it that for some illnesses and injuries, there are permitted cures, while for others there are not?
“So for those people unfortunate enough to have a muscle tear, there’s no treatment. They’re just out of the race. I do struggle to buy into this idea that medicine has levelled the playing field; in fact, it has only levelled the playing field for some.”
Amid the column inches dedicated to duplicity and cheating, the harmful health implications of doping are often buried. In a recent article in the German newspaper Die Zeit, looking at the legacy of the East Germany’s state-sponsored doping programme of the 1970s and 1980, the list of serious complaints among victims included everything from liver and kidney damage to varicose veins, arthritis and chronic fatigue.
According to Parisotto – who invented a test used to detect the blood doping agent EPO at the 2000 Sydney Olympics – governing bodies have a responsibility to come down hard on the use of performance-enhancing drugs for the sake of protecting athletes’ health as much as anything.
Back in 2015, this led Parisotto to accuse the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) of “failing its athletes”, after he was enlisted by the Sunday Times and German broadcaster ADR to analyse leaked data from the IAAF. Parisotto concluded the body had failed to act in addressing the suspicious results of hundreds of its athletes.
“As I’ve not seen any recent IAAF data, it’s impossible for me to say whether they’ve
moved on in terms of being effective managers of data and being effective proponents of drug testing,” says Parisotto.
“But what I will say is that – based on the data I saw three years ago – it was a woeful attempt by the IAAF to reign in blood doping. In terms of the health of athletes, their parameters were so bad that we saw athletes exposing themselves to increased risks of heart attacks and strokes.”
Ongoing revelations about doping – or suspected doping – also bring into question the concept of “clean sport”. Every time a world record is destroyed, or a cyclist makes a mountain climb look like a coast through the Fens, do we spectators truly believe it’s above board? More to the point, do we even care?
“I honestly don’t know if we even want clean sport – or what it really means,” answers Dr Lambros Lazarus, assistant professor of social psychology at Sheffield Hallam University.
“We are all really excited about athletes breaking records all the time, but then, as a society, we are always wanting more. We want them to be faster, higher, stronger. How can you expect athletes to be able to do that without pharmaceutical support?”
Dimeo suspects that the definition of clean sport “harks back to days gone by when athletes were amateur and did it for the glory of sport”. (Picture the image of Roger Bannister being held by spectators at the end of his four-minute mile triumph, eyes closed, mouth agape through sheer exhaustion).
“I feel some people have just hung onto an idea of clean sport that doesn’t really match the reality of how you become a high-performance athlete,” Dimeo continues.
“There are elements of different types of medicine supplementing drug use even amongst athletes who would say they’re clean. The ideal of clean sport is that it’s drug-free and natural, but the true practicalities of clean sport are that you just follow the rules and don’t test positive. Those waters are muddy.”
The aforementioned scandals in recent years have also laid bare a morbid fascination around doping. It’s easy to understand why stories of shady doctors, clandestine border crossings in the dead of night, and mysterious money transfers have captured the imagination of many. The US Anti-Doping Agency’s 2012 report on Armstrong’s transgressions, “The Reasoned Decision”, at times reads more like a Tom Clancy thriller than an official document.
Perverse as it may be, this also plays into the tall-poppy syndrome synonymous with sport, in which fans need villains to focus their attention on as much as heroes. If Lance Armstrong’s nosedive from grace has taught us anything, it’s that our appetite for a good rise-and-fall narrative remains as voracious as ever.
“Seeing a winner is not enough,” says Parisotto. “We also want to see that same person lose – and not necessarily on the sporting field. We build our sporting icons up, only to kick them in the guts.”
When the 2018 Tour de France starts on July 7 on the Ile de Noirmoutier, the events of 20 years ago will be recalled by many. It shall serve as a reminder of how far sport has come in heading off the scourge of doping – but more poignantly, of a fight that shows no sign of ever being over.
To read more about the state of modern sport, take a look at the latest edition of Overseas here.