The Tour: Not Just For Doping Anymore

Monday, June 27th, 2016

This year is, of course, 2016 – an even year. I like even years or, rather, I regard odd years with dread. For in those odd-numbered years, the European football seasons routinely terminate towards the end of May as usual, and then the following weeks pass within what is for me a hazy mental cloud of wondering how to pass my time, indeed of wondering why I am even here. Even years, on the other hand, always manage to fill this particular period with meaning, with purpose, via the great football tournaments, either the World Cup or – this year – the European Championship.

You might object, “Well, you only need to make it to the beginning of July – then you have the Tour de France!” Yes, but that always strikes quite a different sort of note. The football tournaments are drama; the Tour de France, in contrast, is comedy.

Or perhaps I should specify further: The Tour de France is of course farce. No need to get very “in” to it, to recognize or memorize the rider who might happen to “win” it: sooner or later his accomplishment will be rescinded due to revealed doping of one sort or another. This ultimately makes the phenomenon only interesting in that faint way that WWE (that is, professional “wrestling”) matches are interesting: you can only marvel at how people can take so seriously something that is obviously so fake.

Now we have reports that a completely different problem has arisen to erode the Tour’s credibility further: that of hidden motors installed to provide competing riders with a bit of mechanical assistance.

TourMotor
This first came up last January at the world cyclo-cross championships in Belgium, where the Belgian favorite in the women’s under-23 event, one Femke van den Driessche, was indeed disqualified for having used a small motor installed on her rear wheel.

The officials in charge of this year’s Tour de France are ready to prevent any sort of monkey-business like that from occurring. This was announced today by no less than France’s Secretary of State for Sports, Thierry Braillard, who stated that there would be an extensive system of thermal cameras to catch such hidden motors. In fact, for some reason it is the French Atomic Energy Agency (CEA, in French) that will be installing them – yep, that’s what the article says – cameras so sensitive that even motors not in use will be detectable. Apparently, experiments run this past weekend gave these officials confidence that they will work as promised.

“It is very important that we can detect a cheat,” as the president of the Union of International Cyclists, Brian Cookson, pointed out at today’s very same press-conference. Well, yes . . . I guess, although the Tour does not have a very good record in doing so, or at least in detecting cheats in time to actually deny them the glory of appearing on the victor’s podium at the Tour’s end. Then again, its officials are fighting against the inexorable advance of science, after all – medical science, and now, mechanical and miniaturization science.

This is further a “special” year in that, shortly after the Tour is wound up, the Summer Olympics start in Brazil. And again we will have a classic WWE-type farce; indeed, from the turmoil that has already gone on about doping in athletics – including, of course, the exclusion of the entire Russian track and field team – the Tour will surely only be the appetizer to a veritable feast of cat-and-mouse intrigue in Rio between cheating athletes and those who are responsible for catching them.

It will be amusing, no doubt – but, as usual, nothing to take very seriously.

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Back to Doping Square One

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

Take a good look at the below tableau: Such a scene of triumph and female empowerment, smiles all around, the Russian flag wielded like a blanket and the (bizarre, disjointed) logo of the 2012 London Summer Games looming off to the left.

12JANBritseAthletiek
Sadly, as was revealed to the world not so long ago – by the WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency – if that Russian flag stands for anything these days, it stands for a state-sponsored campaign of deliberate cheating at international athletics competitions through doping and other artificial (and banned) chemical advantages. The two “athletes” pictured here, track-and-field runners Mariya Savinova and Ekaterina Poistogova, were both on a list of five published in November for which the WADA recommended a lifetime ban from any further competitions. (As you will further be aware, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) also banned all Russian track-and-field athletes from the upcoming Rio Olympic Games.)

Gee, people pay billions to build facilities and throw a a high-level athletics party (OK, “competition”), invite you to come join in – and then you cheat! Not being especially grateful for the hospitality there, wouldn’t you agree? That may be why, as the Volkskrant reports here, the British athletic federation, UK Athletics, has just put out a quite remarkable anti-doping proposal, entitled “Manifesto for Clean Athletics.” Here are the introductory words of Chairman Ed Warner:

Greater transparency, tougher sanctions, longer bans – and even resetting the clock on world records for a new era – we should be open to do whatever it takes to restore credibility in the sport. And at the heart must be a proper and appropriate funding regime for the anti-doping authorities to help confront the new challenges they face. Clean athletes the world over deserve nothing less.

“Greater transparency” means recording all doping-checks and their results in an open register, according to this proposal; “tougher sanctions, longer bans” means establishing a minimum ban of eight years for cheaters. There are a number of other interesting suggestions here as well (e.g. if your athlete is caught cheating, you as a federation compensate the lost prize-money to those athletes of other federations who were honest) which you can read, in English, on the UK Athletics website. But the one that particularly catches the eye, of course, is erasing all athletic records and just starting over. Why not indeed? (more…)

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Utrecht Doped Up for Tour de France

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

It’s the beginning of July! It’s time for the Tour de France! But already there is trouble with the main sponsor of one of the competing teams.

Dopage
Right, check out that guy’s jersey: the team in question is called Giant-Alpecin after its two main sponsors, Giant bicycles (a Taiwan company) and the German shampoo manufacturer Alpecin. The trouble arises with Alpecin’s current advertising slogan, touting its concoctions as “doping for your hair.”

Oops. “Doping”: that’s an awkward word at the Tour de France. Alpecin executives quickly retreated, promising to suspend the slogan for the three weeks of the Tour. CEO Eduard R. Dörrenberg even promised on the company website “a team without any doping, without the slightest doubt. We are well aware of our responsibility and can clearly distinguish between promotion of the effects of a product and sportive trickery.” You can read it all here (if you read German: “No doping-advertising during the Tour”):

Alpecin
That’s very noble of Herr Dörrenberg, but it’s also naive. He has no ability to make such a promise. What is he going to do, have his Alpecin employees patrol the highways and by-ways around every Tour-stage looking into buildings, trailers, barns, etc. to see if anyone is transfusing blood?

(more…)

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A Look Back at Doping

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

The Tour de France rolled on to its final destination at the Champs Élysées in Paris on Sunday, to wind up what for this weblog has frankly been a most disappointing spectacle. Why? Because we have something against Alberto Contador and would rather have seen Lance Armstrong win the thing for the eighth time? Hardly; anyone who has been following coverage of the Tour de France on this weblog knows perfectly well that I do so through one prism only: doping. And – glory be! – it does seem that there was not one kerfluffle involving doping on this year’s Tour. What can that mean?

Fortunately, this is a question that the Dutch Christian newspaper Nederlands Dagblad ((Motto: Don’t try to access us on the Sabbath, we shut the site down”) now addresses: Who knows whether the Tour was clean in 2009. And indeed, we can’t know yet whether that absence of doping incidents this year actually meant that no one was cheating. (“No one was cheating”: that’s a concept rather difficult to wrap your mind around in any case, no?) We can’t know now, but we can get a better idea with the passage of time, because that is what in fact has been the big recent advance in anti-doping techniques according to this article: after-the-fact (or retrospective) analysis. Since 1 January of this year the procedures for conducting that have been set down in an iron-clad legal and procedural framework. (more…)

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Bernie Madoff Expresses Confidence in US Financial Market Integrity

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

OK – so that headline is not precisely accurate. I meant it more as a striking analogy to the sports phenomenon reported today by the German newsmagazine Focus. Everyone can now rest assured that professional bicycle-racing is now an ultra-clean sport in which nobody would think of cheating – so declared infamous doper Jan Ullrich today in an interview on the “Eurosport” TV channel.

“Cycling is one of the cleanest sports,” Ullrich declared to his interviewer, “because there are so many checks/inspections [Ger. Kontrollen].” Why, his German colleague Andreas Klöden, now riding in the Tour de France, told him about being subjected already to no less than eight checks – and at this point the 2009 Tour still has four stages to go! Ullrich:

The guys are thrown out of bed at six-thirty in the morning, an inspector comes in the room and stays with them the entire time . . . always at your side, at the toilet, in the shower, as you brush your teeth, to take blood from you at any time. You can go too far with it.

I would wager that it is rather Ullrich who is going rather too far with his description. Just to remind readers who do not follow cycling closely, Ullrich was disqualified from participating in the 2006 Tour de France one day before it was supposed to start because evidence emerged linking him with “Operación Puerto,” a blood-doping sting operation undertaken by the Spanish authorities. Ullrich vehemently denied having anything to do with the doping operations by a certain Dr. Eufamiano Fuentes uncovered by “Operación Puerto,” but months later a sample of his blood did match the DNA of the blood seized in that investigation.

Upon announcing his retirement from cycling in Hamburg in February of 2007, Ullrich maintained that “I never once cheated as a cyclist.” On the other hand, don’t forget that embedded YouTube video I have at the end of my post on the Tour de France of earlier this month, showing Ullrich bicycling up a mountain in 1997 exhibiting an output of power – an estmated 480 watts – itself way outside the range which even doped Olympic sprinters find possible.

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Doubled Donkeypower

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

Back at the Tour de France, the “team time trial” that constitutes Stage 4 yesterday resulted in a strong victory for Lance Armstrong’s Astana team that put him up to second place, just two-tenths of a second behind the current leader, Fabian Cancellara. “Astana cruised so fast along 24.2 miles . . . of narrow and snaking roads,” wrote New York Times reporter Juliet Macur, “that the pack looked like a giant blur of blue and yellow.”

That’s all fine; but we also have, observing from the sidelines, one Antoine Vayer, once a trainer of the Festina bicycle-racing team, but who for ten years now has instead studied athletic physiology intensively, to the point that he is currently Professor of Physical Education at a French university. More to the point, however, is the research organization he has founded, called “AlternatiV,” devoted to the problem of bicycle-race doping. Because now Antoine Vayer has the sort of implacable hostility to that practice that can only come from those who used to be knee-deep in sin themselves.

Along the way, Vayer has also grabbed a cushy summer gig for himself as expert commentator covering each July’s Tour de France for a newspaper, first for Le Monde back in 1999, now for Libération. And it’s in a recent article there (entitled Loaded down like mules) that he puts forward the new approach for detecting doping that he has worked out. (Vayer sets the right tone at the very beginning of his piece with an apt derivative of an ancient saying: Male sanus in corpore inhumano, or “Unsound spirit in an inhuman body” – it’s supposed to be “Sound mind in a healthy body” – but I frankly found the exposition of his ideas to be clearer in a an article appearing somewhat later in Le Monde, Tour of Fraud: from “miraculous” to “mutant” doping, by the writer “E.M.,” which is also what alerted me to this issue in the first place.) (more…)

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Quick-Stepping Just Ahead of the Authorities

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

Credit: Wladislaw SojkaYay! Today marks the kick-off of this year’s Tour de France, the 96th version, from Monaco, which will ride through there, through France (of course) and through three other countries (Spain, Italy, and Switzerland) before ending up in Paris on July 26. And you know what all that means: yes, doping! In recent years the drama taking place on France’s (Monaco’s, etc.) highways and byways has reliably been overshadowed by the twists and turns in individual riders’ fortunes caused by bad news emanating out of testing-labs about their urine and blood samples (and even by police raids on teams’ hotels), and then by the deliberations by the cycling authorities about how to react.

Sometimes the sort of doping-drama that has become part-and-parcel of the Tour de France experience has taken place far after the (alleged) winner rode over the finish-line in Paris, so that it has taken until months later for the world to learn which race-results were entirely bogus. But it often gets started early as well, and that certainly is the case this year, as we see in an article from Berlin’s Der Tagesspiegel: Quick-Step defends itself against doping accusations. Basically, Matthias Klappenbach’s piece describes how one of the cycling-teams entered in this year’s Tour, by the name of Quick-Step, already finds itself on the hot-seat. Allegations of doping practices come from one of its former riders, a certain Patrik Sinkewitz, who has specifically accused Quick-Step team leader Patrick Lefévère and team doctor Manuel Rodriguez Alonso of doping their riders – but over the period 2003-2005, it turns out, and in a statement that Sinkewitz submitted to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 2007! As Klappenbach reports, it’s only recently that the WADA passed on Sinkewitz’s statement to the International Cycling Union, and it was also only earlier this week that these allegations were made public (in Germany, at least) in a TV program on the German ZDF network, called “Frontal 21.”

Quick-Step is naturally “shocked” at the “false and slanderous” allegations and has signalled its intention to go to court against them. But it needs to be careful, because it’s clear that that team is not really pure as the new-fallen snow: as the Dutch paper Algemeen Dagblad reports (Quick-Step team-leader relieved), Quick-Step team-member Tom Boonen was only allowed yesterday to participate after all in this year’s Tour de France, despite having tested positive for cocaine-use, due to a ruling from the French Olympic Committee’s arbitration panel. He had already been forced to miss last year’s Tour due to being caught for the same thing at a previous point. (Photo credit: Wladislaw Sojka)

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Doping Gets a Pass at the Olympics

Friday, October 17th, 2008

Followers of this weblog over at least the past few months will recall my very doubtful stance towards the issue of possible doping by athletes at this years Beijing Olympic Games. I presented commentary from an ex-Olympic star doubting that doping could be avoided; and I pointed out how technological advances in sporting accessories were probably producing athletic performances many would call “unnatural” anyway. In fact, in my last sentence of that latter post I opined that, because of these accessories, we “have something else to be concerned about in addition to the pharmacological/blood-swapping tricks that we have to hope the Olympic authorities are sufficiently on-guard against.”

Sorry to say, but up comes an article in the respected German commentary weekly Die Zeit, by Friedhard Teuffel (Doping Policy of the IOC [= International Olympic Committee] is not credible), which indicates that those authorities were rather unlikely to have been sufficiently on-guard.
(more…)

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Sour Doping Grapes?

Saturday, August 16th, 2008

Die Zeit has engaged a number of German ex-Olympians as commentators on the current Beijing Games, among which Heike Henkel, the German (female) high-jumper who won the gold medal in that event in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (among other athletic honors). In an interview posted on that newspaper’s website (Heike Henkel Puts Phelps’ World Records in Doubt) she admittedly has no unkind words specifically about the validity of achievements in this year’s women’s high-jump – but probably only because that competition is scheduled to start next Thursday! In the meantime, she has plenty to say on the subject of doping and its effect on athletics and athletes. (more…)

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Technological Doping

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

How about that Michael Phelps, hey? And the rest of his teammates on the American swim-team, too: not only is gold raining down on them, but an incredible number of swimming world-records are being broken at these Beijing Olympics as well. It’s phenomenal! The Olympic Games have not seen anything like this since . . . well, perhaps since the Winter Games of 1998 in Nagano, Japan, which occurred in the period when clap skates were coming into widespread use for the first time, and as a result “long track” speed-skating records were broken wholesale. (more…)

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All Clear on the Doping Front! So Far . . .

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

Alright!! The French newspaper Humanité (the official organ of the French Communist Party, if you’re interested) has good news to report today from Beijing: The IOC Has Carried Out 650 Anti-Doping Controls, None Positive.

Those 650 tests have been carried out since 27 July, when the Olympic Village in Beijing officially opened – but they have been done not only in the Chinese capital, but also at training camps even outside the country: in Singapore, in Hong Kong, even in the US – “everywhere.” The speaker here is IOC medical director Patrick Schamasch, who made the announcement.

IOC President Jacques Rogge also had a piece to say. He announced that those first 650 were part of the 4,500 tests that Olympic authorities ultimately plan to carry out. Of course, he expects that there will be positive results at some point: specifically, and extrapolating from the 26 cases that were uncovered from the 3,500 test done in Athens four years ago, he expects there to be around 30 to 40 positives by the time testing ceases on 24 August. Of course, if there turn out to be less he would be mightily pleased, he added (if not in those words).

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Top Pharma

Monday, July 28th, 2008

Congratulations to Carlos Sastre, who yesterday won the 95th Tour de France, but let’s also issue a shout-out to his doctors, who managed the difficult feat of doping him up over a grueling 23-day tour well enough so that he could win the thing, but not too well, so that anything untoward would show up on any test (but was any sort of sample ever taken from Sastre? – the article does not say) and/or any particular day’s achievement would appear so out-of-the-ordinary as to raise the usual suspicions.

Still, if you look at that article (it’s the coverage from the NYT, which I am wont to link to when it’s just a matter of giving you a source for the simple facts, ma’am, about some event that has happened; it seems like English is the best language to go with in that situation), there is mention of a “surprisingly strong ride in the final time trial.” Hmm – “surprisingly strong,” and the article also notes that Sastre knew very well that it was specifically the time trials that he would have to do better in during the Tour, in order to finally win the thing after coming up short so many times before. Floyd Landis, you might recall, also had a “surprisingly strong” stage two years ago when it looked like he was falling behind and would lose his overall Tour lead; that was when he flunked the doping test he was administered immediately after. I ask again: was Sastre tested after that “surprisingly strong” time trial stage? (more…)

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What’s A Gold Medal Worth?

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2004

Great commentary today from NYT sports-writer George Vecsey: Athletes Who Use Drugs Are Cheating the Fans. Go ahead, check it out and read about one Johann Muehlegg, who had all three cross-country skiing gold medals he won at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games taken away from him for “use of a banned substance.” German name, huh? (actually, more Austrian) – except that he was competing at Salt Lake City for Spain, a country he found it more convenient to pledge his allegiance to – for whatever reason: tax? – notwithstanding that he couldn’t speak a word of Spanish and probably wouldn’t know a tapa from a tortilla. (Of course not! The latter is Mexican, anyway.)

What if I submit the assertion that this Johann Muehlegg in Utah in February, 2002 (and whenever else) prostituted his body – not to mention his nationality – far more seriously and disgracefully than, say, any of the women sitting behind the rose-colored windows around three kilometers or so away from where I now sit in Amsterdam? At least he looks (properly) like a fully-credentialed idiot, holding up two of his bogus gold medals in the Associated Press photograph that heads Vecsey’s commentary. Check it out. And then stop wondering why many people, myself included, have stopped being willing to take the Olympic Games seriously.

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