Sunday, July 08, 2007

Innocence Lost? Hopes for the Tour de France

Matthew Stevenson has written an outstanding article for the International Herald Tribune about a last bastion of innocence in sport: the Tour de France. Disillusioned, He asks: Has it become the Tour de Dope?

Though I am not nearly as knowledgeable, I must admit that sports seems now to have mirrored an international malaise. The real nature of it escapes me as it has most writers. Hoping to write a decent intro for an excerpt from Matthew's article, I was not surprised but saddened to learn that some 85% of athletes of any sport today freely admit that they would take "a potentially fatal drug, if it would guarantee a major championship win." [See: Drugs, Doping and Cheating in Sports] From the same source, a critical look at the fans who seem willing to look the other way should a favorite star use drugs to enhance performance, drive drunk or bet his/her own sport. But, Matthew had hoped the Tour de France was different.

Has it become the Tour de Dope?

By Matthew Stevenson, Published: July 6, 2007

GENEVA: When I moved from Brooklyn to Switzerland in the 1990s, I had to give up baseball. In those offline days, there was neither a North American sports channel nor streaming Internet in Switzerland. I adopted the Tour de France as my summer pastime and have spent many happy July days in its presence: catching snippets on TV, riding my bike to watch it pass, discussing the results with cab drivers and barbers.

The Tour often starts the day my children finish school and ends when the wheat is cut, making me think of it as a medieval harvest festival with jesters on wheels. I still warm to its revolution around France, its rich literature, the mountaintop finishes, the food en route, and the promotional samples thrown to spectators. For me the pleasure of the race has little to do with the winner.

As this year's race approached, however - amid so many revelations about illegal drugs in professional cycling - I had to confront whether I have been cheering for a sport or a freak show.

Recently, Bjarne Riis, who won the 1996 Tour de France, confessed that he had won while riding high. The week before his admission, last year's Tour champion, the American Floyd Landis, sat before a hearing to protest his innocence against the charge that he won the race pumped up on testosterone.

Before the start of last year's Tour, nearly all the top riders were banned, having been linked to a blood-doping investigation in Spain.

Landis's success in 2006 had offered glimmers of redemption. The son of Mennonites from Pennsylvania, Landis came across as the innocent abroad, who as a boy presumably drafted behind buggies. For a few weeks, until the lab report was in, professional cycling dreamed that it could remake its tarnished image with Landis.

Then, when three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond agreed to testify, Landis's manager threatened that if Greg went against Floyd, he would reveal that LeMond had been abused as a child.

With such tawdry stories as the prologue to this year's Tour de France, some even suggested canceling it - in effect, sending it to rehab. Since 1903, the Tour has only stopped for the two World Wars.

It may have been nice to think that sitting out the Tour for a year would restore the sport to grace, if not innocence. But the appeal of the Tour has always been its epic qualities. For better or for worse, doping has been as much a part of its chemistry as roadside barbeques and drunken Dutchmen.

A Tour poster from its early decades shows a line of riders smoking cigarettes; the hope was that nicotine would "expand" their lungs. Other stimulants in those formative times included brandy in tea, nitroglycerine, and, yes, heroin. Coffee sometimes came laced with cocaine or strychnine. Later came amphetamines, human-growth hormones and testosterone.

It isn't only the riders shooting up in the shower who have been in on the dark secret of doping. Many race officials, team owners, doctors, coaches and even the press have understood that success in cycling has depended on more than water, bananas and PowerBars.

As a result of the scandals, little excitement surrounds the Tour this year, which has the aura of dog racing. At the same time, I would like to think that the Tour is larger than even its drug culture.


Read the entire article at: The International Herald Tribune. I would love to get off into philosophical analogies --but three words "loss of innocence" sums it up. Still, as I have discussed with Matthew, wouldn't it be nice to just spend a nice Sunday afternoon in a non-pretentious ballpark free of colossal, high-tech, multi-media, surround sound scoreboards and enough corporate advertising to finance a moon shot? What's wrong with some peanuts and crackerjacks? Is there nothing worthwhile that is merely enjoyed for its own sake and simple enjoyment, something beyond the reach of big, corporate bucks?

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