August 6, 2006
Sports of The Times
The Final Stage and the Last Straw
By GEORGE VECSEY
CYCLING has become professional wrestling. This is the only possible conclusion now that Floyd Landis’s positive B sample has dropped like a landslide on the sport, or spectacle, or whatever it is.
All those warm and fuzzy sentiments toward Landis, the quirky rider from Pennsylvania Dutch country, have been obliterated. Cycling people said they had never seen a ride like the one he made up the Alps on July 20 after his collapse the previous day. Now we seem to have the explanation. Floyd was juiced.
Early yesterday, the laboratory in Châtenay-Malabry, France, confirmed the original A sample finding, that Landis had an extraordinary spike of testosterone — an 11-to-1 ratio when four to one is the legal limit — when he made his magnificent surge up the mountain.
Landis’s Phonak team dismissed him as soon as the B sample results were announced, and a Tour official told The Associated Press that Landis was no longer considered the champion.
After an appeals process that could take six months, Landis is likely to become the first Tour winner to have the title taken from him. He will become a pariah in his sport, like Rafael Palmeiro in baseball or Justin Gatlin in track and field, like Tyler Hamilton in cycling.
It’s nice that all these sports are finally upgrading their testing, but it may be too late for credibility in cycling. It’s hard to imagine why reputable companies continue to sponsor cycling for the purpose of publicity.
At first, Landis goofed on all of us by suggesting that his one-day leap in testosterone was the result of a swig of Jack Daniel’s the night before, or maybe it was the solitary beer he imbibed. Now, Landis vows to search the ends of the earth for the cause of all that testosterone, some of it synthetic, in his urine. People must think we’re stupid.
Having fallen in love with the Tour (or maybe it was La Belle France herself) in 1982, when I covered Jonathan Boyer, the first American to ride in the Tour, I take all this cheating personally.
Maybe I could have lived with Landis’s mysterious chemical jag if I had not given my gullible little journalist’s heart to Hamilton, the wiry little Yank, three years ago. You know the old saying: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. I’m in the shame-on-me stage of recrimination.
At the Tour in 2003, I stood chest to chest with Hamilton after he had completed a stage with tape holding his broken collarbone in place. The crowd jostled all around us, making me fear I would bump into Hamilton and cause him even more agony after his hot ride through Champagne country. He actually completed the Tour, and we all wrote reams of copy about his courage.
Then in 2004, Hamilton won the time trial at the Summer Games in Athens, but the lab botched the handling of his positive drug test, which meant he got to keep the gold medal. A month later, at the Vuelta a España, another lab found traces of somebody else’s blood in Hamilton’s system.
Hamilton did not blame Jack Daniel’s but instead advanced the “vanishing twin” theory that the second source of blood was a twin who had vanished early in gestation. Nice try, officials said, suspending Hamilton for two years. Hamilton and Landis are lying to our faces or are in major denial. Either way, I cannot stand it anymore.
It’s not as if cycling did not warn us. The sport’s lore includes a quotation from Jacques Anquetil, who won the Tour five times, and once said, “Only a fool would imagine it was possible to win the Tour de France on mineral water.” Fausto Coppi, who won it twice, was once asked if he had ever used dope. “Only when necessary,” Coppi replied. And when was it necessary? “Almost all the time.”
•Americans began to care about the Tour when Greg LeMond captured it three times, twice with 40 buckshot pellets in his body after a hunting accident. LeMond never evinced a whiff of scandal.
What are we to think of Lance Armstrong, who won seven Tours, pursued by charges by many Europeans, as well as some former teammates and associates, that he had cheated, including leaked invalid tests that suggest he was using EPO in 1999?
I compartmentalize Armstrong for a couple of reasons. That he is a charismatic icon in the war against cancer is not relevant. But he dominated the sport for seven straight years, even while his closest competitors were dying, being busted or unable to stay close to him. The other reason is the quaint concept of innocent until proven otherwise.
Armstrong often called himself the most tested athlete in sports, and he had a point. When cycling upgraded its testing in his later years, Armstrong never failed. Yet nine riders could not start this year’s Tour because of suspicions emanating from a drug scandal in Spain, and two likable Americans — Hamilton and Landis — have now been disgraced.
•The fight against drugs at the high end of competitive sport is more than an abstract battle for purity. Jacques Rogge, the physician who is the president of the International Olympic Committee, said the other day that rules existed “not only to test athletes, but also to educate young people about the health dangers of doping and the devastating effect it can have on a person’s image and career.”
Young people wreck their bodies trying to emulate the cheaters in many sports. Busting Hamilton and Landis does not redeem cycling. Until further notice, this entire business is tainted.