Being a commentator for the 2011 Tour de France deserves prime consideration for the toughest job in sports, at least for the next several weeks.
The Tour, which begins on July 2, can be a compelling three-week period featuring world-class athletes, marvelous scenery and almost daily dramatic finishes. How hard could it be to maintain fan interest in such an event?
The problem is that Tour commentators have to share the TV booth with the proverbial 800-pound (and growing) gorilla: the ongoing and persistent allegations of performance-enhancing drug (PED) use by its elite riders. Last year was bad enough when just two months before the 2010 Tour, Floyd Landis, whose 2006 Tour title was revoked because of PED use, accused seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong of using PEDs during his cycling career.
This year is much worse. The Landis allegation helped fuel an ongoing FDA investigation of possible doping methods employed in the past decade by the U.S. Postal Service team. Then, in May of this year, “60 Minutes” broadcast a Scott Pelley report in which Tyler Hamilton, a key Armstrong teammate on that U.S. Postal Service team, stated that he saw Armstrong use PEDs (EPO and testosterone), as well as receive banned blood transfusions. Pelley also reported that George Hincapie, another Armstrong teammate, testified to federal investigators about Armstrong’s use of PEDs. According to SFGate.com, 41 of the 70 top-10 finishers in Armstrong’s seven tour wins have tested positive for PEDs.
The Contador case
But it gets even worse. Last year’s Tour winner, Alberto Contador (a three-time winner) tested positive for clenbuterol, a banned weight-loss and muscle-building drug, five days before the end of the 2010 Tour. Then, things got strange. The positive test was not announced by the International Cycling Union (UCI) until a month later and right before a report in the German media that a Contador sample also showed the presence of plasticizers, which could have come from plastic bags used to store blood for banned transfusions. (Landis’ positive result in 2006 was announced three days after the Tour finale.) Contador claimed that the clenbuterol came from ingesting Spanish beef contaminated with the substance, which can be used to fatten cattle.
Such a claim is controversial; the European Union banned clenbuterol for this use in 1996, although illicit use is a possibility.
Many anti-doping experts believe in the principle of “strict liability,” whereby athletes are held responsible for what is found in their system. By this rule, Contador should have received a two-year ban from competition and the loss of his 2010 Tour title.
The initial decision on Contador’s punishment rested with the Spanish cycling federation (RFEC), which immediately came under competing pressures from UCI and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to impose the ban and from concerns about unjustly punishing one of Spain’s most prominent athletes.RFEC proposed a compromise one-year ban, which was “refused” by Contador; the RFEC then backed off completely from any ban.
As a consequence, UCI and WADA have chosen to appeal the RFEC decision, and impose a two-year ban, to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland, which has the final say in such matters. Here’s the kicker: the CAS will not hear the appeal until AFTER the 2011 Tour is over! So, the world’s best cyclist (he just won the Giro d’Italia in May), and odds-on choice to win the Tour for the fourth time in 2011, could win the Tour this year and then have both his 2010 and 2011 Tour wins revoked if the CAS supports the UCI and WADA appeal.
As for the plasticizer result, Contador will likely catch a break here because the test used hasn’t been scientifically validated.
But, the result adds to the skepticism about how “clean” he was during the 2010 Tour.
The real irony here is that no sport is currently more innovative in its attempts to curtail performance-enhancing drug use than is pro cycling. It has to be. Pro cycling is arguably the sport where PED use has made the deepest penetration, and team sponsors are increasingly reluctant to fund a sport when the outcome can be an embarrassing doping scandal.
So, in 2008, the UCI introduced a new approach to testing for PEDs: the biological passport. Unlike conventional testing, where a specific PED (e.g., the red blood cell and endurance booster EPO) is looked for directly, the passport approach is an indirect one that looks at “downstream” effects of PEDs on “biomarkers” in the body. For example, once a normal blood biomarker profile is established for a given athlete, it should be nearly impossible for an athlete to maintain this profile after using EPO, since this drug has significant effects on several blood biomarkers.
EPO is an especially problematic PED in cycling with 100 versions of it in existence worldwide, many of which can not be detected directly. UCI has now established biological passports for 850 riders at an annual cost of about $8 million. Several athletes have received sanctions based on changes in their biomarker profiles. No other pro sport has come close to matching this commitment.
So, the Tour commentators have some work to do: how do you put a happy face on an event with so much unwanted baggage? Their job is exacerbated by the increasing cynicism of the public about PED use in sports from outcomes of the BALCO case and Mitchell Report on PED use in baseball (which showed the feel-good, homer-happy period from 1996-2003 was primarily fueled by PED use) and the fact that so many 300-plus pound NFL players now fill TV screens. (Never more than eight up to 1984 but 570 by 2006, according to the Palm Beach Post.) Evolution? Not so much.
Will I watch this year’s Tour? Sure, at least some of it.
The scenery is still great, the finishes dramatic, and I’m a sucker for the commentators with British accents. But, I will be paying special attention to the size of the gorilla.
The author, a retired Union College chemistry professor, taught a course on the detection of performance-enhancing drugs in sports and currently lectures on the topic for the American Chemical Society.