Sunday, May 27, 2007

A Sport Can No Longer Peddle Denial

Published: May 27, 2007

Sure, go ahead, enjoy the Tour de France this year. Stock up on the pâté and the baguette and the vin ordinaire, either in a beautiful corner of France or in front of the television. The Tour will still be a compelling sight.

Just don’t take it seriously. That’s all I’m saying. Don’t take the riders into your heart the way I once took the gritty Tyler Hamilton or the loopy Floyd Landis into my sentimental journalist’s notebook, my common sense suspended.

When a prominent rider and coach like Bjarne Riis offers to turn back his yellow 1996 championship jersey because he cheated, as he did Friday, cycling has officially become as bogus as pro wrestling. Companies are already dropping their sponsorships because of the gruesome publicity.

It was bad enough with two American stars, Hamilton and Landis, protesting their innocence despite laboratory tests to the contrary; it was bad enough when Frankie Andreu admitted he had used illegal drugs as a teammate of Lance Armstrong, the iconic seven-time champion and self-styled most-tested athlete in the world; and it was bad enough that European stars like Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso left the Tour recently because of a doping scandal.

The worst blow yet was the announcement Friday by Riis that he had used illegal drugs in 1996, when he suddenly conquered the mountains and Miguel Indurain. Multilingual, thoughtful and accessible, Riis has more recently been the coach of CSC, a Danish team representing an American technology company.

Take it from a journalist who has worked the scrum of a finish line: Riis is a welcome figure, standing outside the CSC bus, explaining the courage of Hamilton, who was riding with a cracked collarbone in 2003, or discussing the potential of Basso as a challenger to Armstrong in 2005.

Riis is a modern man who speaks in corporate phrases about holding team seminars to instill “values” like loyalty, respect, communication and commitment in his riders. But some cycling experts never quite understood how a support rider had suddenly bloomed in athletic middle age.

Now Riis has told the world that his conscience was troubled because he had used the blood-boosting hormone erythropoietin, or EPO, for which there was no test until 2000. On Friday, asked by a journalist if he was a “worthy” champion, Riis said, “No, I am not.”

In a statement, Riis said: “We all make mistakes, and I think my biggest mistake was to let my ambition get the better of me. That I have had to deal with a long time ago, and I am glad to say that I am a lot wiser now, both in my personal and in my professional life.”

If Pete Rose had made a statement like that when investigators documented his betting on baseball in 1989, he would have been rehabilitated and probably come back to manage. Repentant basketball players like Alex Groza and Floyd Lane, caught up in a gambling scandal half a century ago, came back to have admirable coaching careers.

Talk about comebacks: Silvio Berlusconi’s A.C. Milan soccer team won the European Cup on Wednesday only a year after being mildly penalized in a national match-rigging scandal. But Riis let nearly 11 years go by while he enjoyed the status and profits of being a Tour champion; he confessed only when former teammates began singing.

Riis is planning to continue as the coach of CSC. If he can stand the daily gaff from public and press, why shouldn’t he? At the rate cycling is going, nothing is believable, anyway. Riis can impart all his tactical skills and mental strengths, and it will be up to the cycling organization to catch the cheats, which it declined to do when cheating was an open joke.

At least American baseball officials can portray themselves as naifs who did not understand why sluggers and pitchers were suddenly bulked up in the late 1990s. Cycling, however, has a century of anthologized anecdotes about the use of stimulants:

Jacques Anquetil, the five-time champion, once asked, “Do they expect us to ride the Tour on Perrier water?” Fausto Coppi, another great rider, was once asked whether he used amphetamines and he replied, “Only when strictly necessary.” And how often was it necessary? “Most of the time,” Coppi replied.

There will be no wink-wink jokes about the past generation, when a few prominent cyclists died and many aspirants basically fell off their bicycles, their bodies mysteriously ruined. This was serious stuff, but the cycling establishment let it go.

On Friday, Pat McQuaid, the president of the international cycling union, said Riis would not forfeit his title because of the eight-year statute of limitations. But he also said Riis should give back his champion’s jersey.

The Tour de France, which profited from the drama of his improbable victory in 1996, has come down hard on Riis.

“Bjarne Riis said it himself,” Christian Prudhomme, the head of the Tour, told Agence France-Presse on Friday. “He does not deserve to have won the Tour de France, because he cheated. He has left a black mark on the Tour de France.”

Prudhomme added, “Is this someone who should be leading a cycling team?”

The way this spectacle is going, it may not matter. We could be watching a dying business.