Your cheatin’ heart

4 10 2010

Your cheatin’ heart,
Will make you weep,
You’ll cry and cry,
And try to sleep,
But sleep won’t come,
The whole night through,
Your cheatin’ heart, will tell on you…

Hank Williams

Yesterday, more than 100 elite athletes rode 267.2 kilometres from Melbourne to Geelong, and then 11 laps of a hilly, sometimes tortuous circuit of the town, chasing a dream that is the world champion’s rainbow jersey in the sport of professional cycling.

It was a beautiful day – well at least it was in Geelong, with its wide streets and large houses on quarter-acre blocks packed with fans. Legendary cycling commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen regaled worldwide audiences with such pearlers as, ‘Geelong is the centre of Australia’; ‘you can smell the bbqs’, and my personal fave: ‘everyone’s drinking tinnies’ (I don’t know anyone who drinks tinnies. Not even my dad). It was a true win for Australian cycling fans used to sitting up in the early hours, shouting at a TV screen or a sketchy livestream of Fleche-Wallone in Flemish, although I was disappointed by the paucity of ‘roadside randoms‘ we are used to laughing at as they pursue cyclists into the high Pyrenees along roads that bear greater resemblance to goat tracks. This year’s Vuelta a España (the Tour of Spain) featured mountain top finishes that were so tight the team buses could not navigate them; after hours in the saddle, at gradients between 10 and 20 per cent, the riders had to jump back on their bikes and descend the mountain.  There was a concern that the UCI World Championships would be overshadowed, given the AFL Grand Final Redux, and the NRL Grand Final in Sydney. As a cycling fan, I desperately wanted to be there, but a number of factors made that impossible. Chiefly, my level of disorganisation & lack of money. But for once, this blog isn’t about me.

There were other preoccupations aside from Australia’s addiction to two sports that are almost meaningless to the rest of the world: Floyd Landis, who had his 2006 Tour de France title stripped after returning positive drug samples, was speaking at a conference on doping in sport; and then the big news: Alberto Contador, arguably the rider of his generation, had tested positive to the steroid, clenbuterol, which helps develop lean muscle and drop fat. Although illegal, it has been found to contaminate livestock, particularly pig meat and is highly toxic in human beings.

Maybe it’s the greatest stitch up of all time – this information was a mere Google away for me. Contador was, after all, named in Operación Puerto, but later declared clean (as was Australian Allan Davis). However, it does make me inclined to give AC the benefit of the doubt, as Anthony Tan writes today, of the seemingly laughable defence that he had eaten contaminated meat. As Tan and Australia’s Cycling Central website report:

UCI chief Pat McQuaid says Contador could have his fate decided by scientists from the union and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

World cycling’s ruling body itself says only a “very small concentration” of the drug had been found and that the case warranted “further scientific investigation” because the Cologne laboratory which detected the clenbuterol is known to be able to detect the tiniest traces of drugs.

“The concentration found by the laboratory was estimated at 50 picograms which is 400 times less than what the antidoping laboratories accredited by WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) must be able to detect,” the UCI said Friday, adding that analysis of a B sample “confirmed the first”.

Cycling Central’s report goes on to say that if he is perceived as ‘damaged goods’, AC may give the game away. To me, that would be both a tragedy (this is a guy who, at the age of 27 has won EVERY Grand Tour, including three Tours de France) and perhaps, progress for the sport.

The Contador story, while the biggest of the week, wasn’t the only cycling doping yarn to emerge. More names came tumbling out –  Xacobeo-Galicia riders Ezequiel Mosquera and David García Dapena had both tested positive for Hydroxyethyl starch on September 16, during the Vuelta. Mosquera (“The Mosquito”) had finished the race in 2nd place, and Da Peña finished 11th overall. I think everyone who watched the Vuelta this year cheered Mosquera on, a rider who rarely races outside his native Spain, as he duelled with this year’s Italian sensation, Vincenzo Nibali. A podium finish in a Grand Tour is professional cycling’s Holy Grail; yes, this year’s Vuelta was somewhat diminished by its closeness to the UCI World Championships and the number of elite riders who didn’t enter, or pulled out; nonetheless, it was rough and tumble racing from Day 1.

Here beginneth the rant:

In 2010 alone, the following riders have all been named, suspended by their teams or from riding in certain countries, subjected to provisional or set-time UCI bans after returning positive samples:

  • A giant of Spanish cycling, Alejandro Valverde, who is banned from riding in Italy after failing to overturn a suspension by that country’s racing body in the Court for Sporting Arbitration. The UCI extended the two-year ban worldwide and erased all of his 2010 results;
  • Claims in Italy’s La Gazzetto dello Sport of a police investigation of 54 people centred on the town of Mantova, in Italy’s Lombardy region. The newspaper named 16 of Lampre-Farnesi Vini’s current and former riders, including ‘The Little Prince’ of Italian cycling, Damiano Cunego; former UCI Elite Men’s Road Racing champion, Alessandro Ballan and Mauro Santambrogio (now with BMC Racing Team – which provisionally suspended the pair until the completion of the police investigation); BMC reinstated the pair, satisfied that no authority had opened proceedings against them; Lampre did not take similar action against any members of its squad.
  • Another BMC rider, Thomas Frei, was provisionally suspended, pending further investigation and testing of his B sample, after testing positive for Recombinant Erythropoietin (EPO – which increases red blood cell production, allowing the body to carry more oxygen);
  • Team Radio Shack suspended rider Li Fuyo pending the outcome of the B sample after his positive test for clenbutrol;
  • The UCI banned Gabriele Bosision from professional cycling for two years after testing positive to EPO in 2009;
  • In ongoing cases, the UCI has named Franco Pellizotti, Jesus Rosendo Prado and Tadej Valjavec for returning irregular blood values in their ‘blood passports’ (A biological passport is an individual, electronic record for each rider, in which the results of all doping tests over a period of time are collated. Doping violations can be detected by noting variances from an athlete’s established levels outside permissible limits, rather than testing for and identifying illegal substances);
  • French rider Mickaël Larpe tested positive for EPO;
  • Francesco De Bonis became the first cyclist to receive a two-year sanction on the evidence of his blood passport results;
  • Pietro Caucchioli was also banned for two years on the evidence of his irregular blood passport results;
  • Ricardo Serrano was suspended by the Spanish cycling federation (RFEC) for two years due to Continuous Erythropoesis Receptor Activator (CERA) having been found in two separate blood samples collected around a year ago. He was also implicated due to abnormal values in his blood passport;
  • Nicklas Axelsson was suspended for life following positive analysis of his B-sample for EPO. He had previously been suspended for EPO use in 2001;
  • The UK Anti-doping agency posted the two year suspension for cyclist Dan Staite for EPO and ATD found in sample taken at a National B level event;
  • While he was riding the Vuelta, it was announced that Roy Sentjens had failed an out of competition doping control and would be suspended. He admitted to having doped with EPO that he had obtained in Barcelona, Spain, and declined to request the testing of his B-sample. He also announced his immediate retirement from professional cycling;
  • A UCI statement announced that Óscar Sevilla tested positive for the blood expander Hydroxyethl starchafter the final stage of the Vuelta a Colombia, which he had won.

(Sources:; cyclingcentral, velonation andWikipedia – the font of all lazy blogger’s knowledge)

Other recent high profile professional cycling cases include: Bernhard Kohl; Tom Boonen (cocaine); Ricardo Riccò; Michael Rasmussen (who at the time, was wearing the general classification leader’s maillot jaune in the 2007 Tour de France); Iban Mayo (suspended for two years – has not returned to the sport); Alexandre Vinokourov; Ivan Basso (for self-confesed ‘attempted doping’); Landis; Danilo Hondo; David Millar; Stefan Schumacher; Leonardo Piepoli; Tyler Hamilton (Olympic Champion); Bjarne Riis (1996 TdF winner and Team Saxo Bank manager); Marco Pantani (winner of the 1998 TdF and Giro d’Italia) Jan Ullrich (winner of the 1997 TdF, 1999 Vuelta; Olympic champion) – famed for his rivalry with Lance Armstrong, Ullrich retired in 2007, having been barred from the 2006 TdF amid speculation of doping.

Some episodes are so damaging, so prolific, they have become ‘affairs’: Telekom, Festina; Operación Puerto; ‘Oil for Drugs’. Welcome to professional cycling – the sport of dopers. Different day, different race, different drug, same shit. I cried when Rasmussen was caught, because I was tired of watching inspiring performances of man and bike versus mountain being trashed the next day. Sickened by the stench of mendacity, of lies and liars, to borrow from Tennessee Williams.

Tragically, and for decades, drugs have ruined the reputations and careers of sporting heroes – example A: Diego Maradona – and in the worst instances, been implicated in the deaths of heroes including Marco Pantani. But the use of performance-enhancing drugs or banned substances is neither a new phenomenon or limited to cycling. So why is cycling perceived by many as a haven for cheats, marred by the constant suspicion of drug cheating (particularly by afficionados who believe the successes of certain stars of the sport cannot be due to their extraordinary abilities)? Even the most one-eyed fanatics know the sport has been damaged, and seems to hurt more than others, with every transgression, every whisper, every allegation.

Think of the use of anabolic steroids in bodybuilding and athletics; where the Olympic ideal of ‘faster, higher, stronger’ could only be achieved by the likes of Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, through doping. The United States Olympic Committee covered up the use of banned substances, as admitted by stars including Evelyn Ashford and Carl Lewis. Both American football and baseball have been connected with steroid use; footballers, tennis players, cricketers, ice hockey players linked to the use of illegal drugs and diuretics; the evermore sinister ways of covering up – from urine and blood sample swapping to new masking agents.

Without doubt, it is the systemic abuse of East German athletes and swimmers that haunts me most. A regime imposed on young people; state-sponsored and dictated, often without their knowledge, or at least informed consent. For every star the ‘system’ produced, it wounded the bodies and minds of hundreds, so much so that on 1 October 2010, Craig Lord labelled it the ‘Sporting Crime of the Century’ on

Sport is war and at its core in the Cold War years of the 1970s and 1980s was a cancer called State Plan 14:25. It was a medal-making machine that created sure-fire winners and podium placers. Some names came, conquered and vanished almost as quickly. To the architects of State Plan 14:25, a systematic doping regime rolled out to an estimated 10,000 young athletes in all sports during the days of the German Democratic Republic, the names were, effectively, mere numbers, the swimmers (and others) there for one purpose: to serve as “ambassadors in track suits” and show the world that the socialist-communist system was the best, better than the West. 

The notion was a sham behind which generations of sporting scapegoats had their talent twisted for political gain before being spat out of the machine at the other end as victims, many of whom still pay a very high price today 20 years after a GDR about to be dissolved through reunification of Germany held its first free elections, on March 18, 1990. The people of the German Democratic Republic formally joined the people of the Federal Republic of Germany on Oct. 3, 1990. In swimming, that gave rise to the first joint swim team at a world titles, Perth 1991 featuring Michael Gross, at his swansong meet, and the retired Kristin Otto on a podium together.

Gross appealed to reporters to leave the past behind. Impossible for those who lived through it, warts and all, of course. Between 1973 and 1988, GDR women swimmers shattered 130 world records, won more than half of all Olympic medals available to them in the pool (1976, 1980 and 1988), almost two thirds of all world titles and 97 out of 104 European crowns. 

State Plan 14:25 held that children (for many of those doped, particularly in sports such as swimming, were under age) would be doped with substances such as anabolic steroids, some never clinically tested on animals before human guinea pigs were plied with them, and without the knowledge or consent of their parents. The 1966 blueprint refers to the drugs as “Unterstutzenden Mitteln”, or “supporting means”. The blueprint would not be signed as official policy until 1974 but experimentation on athletes started much earlier and tests had surely been conducted in international competition by then at the start of what would be the biggest pharmacological experiment in sports history. 

The drugs, administered by doctors and coaches, included Oral-Turinabol, a synthetic anabolic agent developed for cancer patients; testosterone derivatives; and “STS 646”, a drug considered too dangerous to licence inside the GDR but given to teenagers before being tested on lab rats. “The pills came in a box of chocolates,” Catherine Menschner would say in court in 1999. You are unlikely to know here name. By the time she spoke she had suffered seven miscarriages in the years after quitting the sport in which she was fed a diet of drugs but not for international glory. “I was a guinea-pig. I was used to test drugs for better athletes so they could win for the GDR.”

In his trial, Dr Lothar Kipke adopted the role of Nazi concentration camp guard: “I was only following orders…”. There to hear him was former swimmer Martina Gottshalt, who urged her abuser to “look my 15-year-old son in the eyes and tell him you were just following orders”. Her son, Daniel, sat beside her, his clubfoot swinging under the bench.

… Among doctors called to court to account for their role in a massive deception was Dr Dorit Rosler. Irony of ironies, she would set up a surgery in Czarnikauer Strasse in post GDR days with the very purpose of helping victims of the GDR doping system. In court, Rosler broke down in tears when she faced some of those victims and said: “I should have shown more courage. In Nazi Germany we did what we were told to do. The GDR doping machine was no different; we were just carrying out medical orders … have we not learned anything?” 

And all the while, German sports bodies continue to list the efforts of GDR athletes as the German record for events galore. In swimming a handful of national records remain in place 20 years on, including the women’s 400m and 800m free standards that even world champion Hannah Stockbauer could not get beyond. In track and field, four GDR world records remain the world records today, bodies from the IOC downwards apparently unable or unwilling to grasp the nettle and place the GDR years in context: the sporting crime of the 20th century.

So back to my original question: why is cycling perceived to be dirtier when other sports and events, including the Olympics, have also been tarnished? In my opinion, it is because cycling almost always imposes bans that last a few years, and are applied retrospectively, inviting known, or confessed drug cheats back into the sport almost as soon as they left it. In other sports, if you’re exposed as a drug cheat, you’re forever ‘disgraced’; stripped of your titles; outcast. Not so with cycling: you do the crime, you pay the time, and back you come (unless you decide to give it up). I was happy that Ivan Basso won this year’s Giro d’Italia; but that ‘clean’ feeling is marred by the knowledge that he was at least willing to dope. While there is redemption, I find myself wanting to turn the TV off every time David Millar talks about drugs in sport – the hypocrisy of a man who excelled while doping; and the greatest what if for me – what if Contador IS a master doper, learning the dark art through his connection to Operación Puerto, and robbed Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck of Tour victories? The conjecture surrounding Lance Armstrong and the rest of the US Postal/Discovery teams is ongoing, with Landis’ allegations about the highest profile cyclist of the modern era as yet unfounded and tainted by his own flakiness.

What if the only way forward for professional cycling is, together with what is acknowledged as one of the toughest anti-doping regimens in sport, banning dopers for life? Is it that terrible and that necessary to get the message through to the numbskulls caught this year that it isn’t worth it, that they are defiling a sport which can separate winners over a three-week Tour by a handful of seconds? A sport that deserves to be associated with all that is noble, with its reliance on strength, determination, speed, agility, tactics, teamwork and individual brilliance – with riders who honour the jersey, regardless of the colour, and whether they wear it for a day or a week.

In both my head and heart, I want to know, I want to believe that Alberto Contador is not a drug cheat. We share the same birthday (fun fact) and even if he did beat my beloved Cadel Evams by 23 seconds, he won the 2007 Tour de France by holding his nerve to produce the Individual Time Trial of his life when almost everyone with an opinion at the time (me included) thought Cadel would blast him off the road. I don’t want to know that he stood on the winner’s podium this year – winning over Andy Schleck by a mere eight seconds in controversial circumstances (meh, I think AS is a whinger) – knowing in his heart that he made it with a little help. I don’t want his achievements to be written off. Professional road cycling will be more than a little poorer without his talent; and it will have one fewer fan. It may be self-indulgent, but I’d like to think that the long hours spent loving a sport count.