It’s an odd phenomenon, and one that’s difficult to explain, but the popularity of the Tour de France increases exponentially each year in Australia in almost inverse proportion to the event’s credibility.
More Australians than ever before are taking to the streets in their fluoro-pink skinsuits, their broad a-ses spilling over the sleek seats on their racing bikes, and SBS’s wonderful coverage of the event wins a new audience each year (even though it has become an equivalent feat of stamina for the couch potatoes, ending as it does about 2am each day.)
Yet the drug scandals in cycling’s premier race keep coming, as regularly as Lance Armstrong yellow jersey wins. Another day, another doping debacle. Forget about death and taxes: the one surefire thing in this modern world of ours is positive Tour de France drug tests each July. Such is the scale of the problem, the cyclists have begun to make the serial offenders, the weightlifters and Olympic sprinters, look like Mormon tabernacle choirboys.
Now, German television has taken the dramatic step of pulling the plug on the Tour, saying yesterday’s positive test by German cyclist Patrick Sinkewitz was the final straw.
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And we thought things could get no worse after last year when the winner, Floyd Landis, tested positive for synthetic testosterone, an accusation the American has repeatedly, and at times clumsily, denied. An arbitration panel is considering whether Landis should lose his title after the positive test following his dramatic victory in the 17th stage last year. He claims he’s been wronged by a French lab.
This week, the drug spectre has hovered not just above the usual suspects. Even the staid world of golf was tarred with the druggie brush when Gary Player, one of the game’s icons, said drug-use among the plaid-pant brigade on the US Tour was common. You could almost hear the spluttering in the Royal and Ancient clubhouse from here.
Sport, of course, is a reflection of society. It would be nonsensical to expect each sport to be clean when a portion of the population has illicit substances coursing through their bodies. Just as West Coast’s Ben Cousins has spent four months on the sidelines while recovering from an addiction, so each sport will have its users.
Yes, the noble sporting ideals of yesteryear have taken a hit in the midships, just like the poor old Labrador that happened to wander in the path of a Tour cyclist on Wednesday. The professionalism of modern sport may have elevated it to a higher plane of global popularity and accessibility but, in the end, it could also be its undoing. Sponsors, and television networks, will sniff the breeze and if cycling, to take one example, continues to be on the nose, they will take their business elsewhere. For these money-men, loyalty to any given sport is only skinsuit deep.
Three years ago, police raided the home of British rider David Millar and uncovered a small pharmacy’s worth of doping products. After a two-year suspension, Millar is racing again — and was among the early leaders of this year’s Tour. Not just a good cyclist but a clever thinker, Millar was also able to elucidate this point with stunning clarity.
”There comes a point, and I reckon we’re there now, when sponsors are going to pull out and the sport won’t be economically viable,’’ he told the Independent newspaper on the eve of the Tour. ”We’ve reached a kind of endgame. It won’t be ethics that brings this whole thing to a halt. It’ll be money.’’