The Tour de France Is DisIntegrating
Following positive test results for a banned substance, Italian cyclist Riccardo Ricco became the third rider at this year's Tour de France to be kicked out of the race. German and Swiss commentators are quickly losing faith in the Tour organizers' claims of progress in the fight against doping.
Ricco, 24, tested positive to the blood-boosting drug erythropoietin (EPO) on Thursday. To a chorus of boos by onlooking cycling fans, Ricco was arrested by French police in the town of Lavelanet in accordance with a two-month old French law that makes riders criminally liable for using or possessing banned substances.
The police also launched a search of the bus of the Saunier Duval team, which pulled out of the race following Thursday's announcement by the French Anti-Doping Agency (AFLD) of its leader's expulsion and arrest.
Ricco, who has denied any wrongdoing, had been in ninth place and had already won two stages of the 2008 Tour. He joins Spaniards Manuel Beltran and Moises Duenas Nevado in being ejected from this year's tour following positive tests for EPO.
The findings did not surprise everyone, as Ricco has long been suspected of doping. Blood tests in the past have detected high levels of hematocrit, the proportion of red blood cells to total blood volume, which can suggest—though not confirm—EPO use.
Following the ninth stage, Ricco responded to reporters' questions about such high levels by saying that he has had them "ever since I was little," according to the AP. "I hope soon," he added, "that everybody will stop speaking about this."
A urine sample of Ricco taken after the fourth stage, however, tested positive for synthetic EPO and the substance known generically as CERA (continuous erythropoiesis receptor activator), a new third-generation synthetic EPO agent marketed in Europe by Roche under the brand name Micera. Ricco might have been caught by laboratory tests using a new, undisclosed technique for detecting the substance, Germany'sSüddeutsche Zeitung newspaper reported.
Tour organizers and other riders responded with anger to Thursday's announcement, though not particularly to Ricco's expulsion. "May the cheaters get caught," Tour president Christian Prudhomme told the AP. "May they go away."
"This guy does not have any love or care for the sport," lamented David Millar, a British rider on the Garmin-Chipotle team. "We are learning that things that look too good to be true are too good to be true."
Despite the anger, Tour organizers are hoping that Ricco's expulsion will be taken as a sign of the progress they've made after at least nine doping-related scandals in the last two Tours. "We're building the foundations for a new professional cycling," Prudhomme told Reuters, "and we're closer than ever to achieving it. … It shows that the controls are really efficient and that it is harder to get away with it."
Commentators for German and Swiss papers don't seem to share Prudhomme's confidence:
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The people really facing criticism now are the sport's investigators. They might be working hard, but they are still helpless when facing the imaginativeness of the doping industry. They're always one step behind and never up to speed. … The analysts used a test for the EPO blood-doping drug that took the people who were using it by surprise. And, using it, they were able to supply the French police with important leads for their investigations against the business behind the sport. This should send a good warning sign to dopers."
"It's things like this that make it impossible for people to hold on to illusions about the sport's purity. For starters, there are still plenty of performance enhancers that can escape detection. Second, the carelessness of the riders who were recently exposed also played a role in their getting caught. Third, many organizations for other sports are not very sophisticated about how and when they conduct tests. And there continue to be many athletes who succeed in doping right under the noses of the investigators—both in the Tour and in large numbers in the near future during the Beijing Olympics."
The Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel writes:
"The Tour de France is disintegrating. … and questions remain: How is it that it took so long to catch a rider like Ricco, who has been tested as having suspicious blood and hormone levels for years? And how long do the Tour's organizers intend to treat such incidents as if they were exceptions?..."
"With every (doping) case, the way people see the sport changes. Cheating is not a problem confined to one sport. As has been shown by the scandal of the Austrian biathletes at Turin's Olympics and by the BALCO affair with US track-and-field athletes, cheating has an entire infrastructure. Many spectators and an increasing number of sports journalists are developing a healthy skepticism. This will also be true when it comes to the Olympic Games in Beijing, seeing that 70 percent of all illegal growth hormones are manufactured in China."
"Cycling has shown how people can lose faith for good. After the scandals of the 2006 and 2007 Tours, no clear progress has been made. Many spectators aren't just skeptical now; they also just don't follow the sport anymore."
Switzerland's Neue Zürcher Zeitung writes:
"The rest of the Tour de France may offer a bizarre new form of excitement, with people watching to see who the latest is to get snared by the EPO test. A number of people are pessimistically predicting that even more sobering news is yet to emerge for cycling. And, once again, the question of who will be the overall winner will not be the first thing on peoples' minds. … The self-importance with which Ricco answered critical questions over the last several days begs comparison with other riders (Lance Armstrong and Michael Rasmussen, for example), who have responded in a similarly arrogant way. … Stock in cyclist credibility has taken a steep dive in value. And an up-to-date EPO-test won't be able to help that much, either."