A Loathsome Spectacle
Recently a sports writer described his day at the baseball park as a ‘professional chore' while he watched the “loathsome spectacle” of Barry Bonds slug his way towards baseball history to beat the previous record of home runs. A couple of days later a famous late night TV host mentioned Bonds impending record and was treated to a chorus of cat-calls and boos from the audience.
Bonds is as reviled by fellow baseball players as he is the general public. A former player who had played against Bonds about 10 years ago stated “No doubt he did steroids. But a lot of others did too.” On the evening (7th August 2007) that Bonds broke the record the Commissioner for baseball (the equivalent to the UCI's Pat McQuaid) made a point of not being in the stadium. Instead he sent two emissaries.
Like so many other professional sports, baseball is doing next to nothing to address the issue of drugs. The regulating organizations along with the team owners are doing their best to ignore the problems. However the crowds still turn up and pay big money to enter the stadiums. As one fan put it “I enjoy watching baseball but I've come to grips that some of the stuff is tainted.”
For major sports like baseball, football, basket ball, soccer and NASCAR racing, huge money is at stake for those who run and participate in the sports. Quite simply the attitude is that you do not ‘bite the hand that feeds you'.
By every indicator that can be analyzed, baseball experts claim that the game is currently at it's highest ever level of popularity. Conservative estimates show that when Bonds is playing he draws an additional 4000 spectators into the stadium. Over the course of a year this means about 300,000 spectators paying in excess of $50 each per game to watch a sport populated by “athletes” widely known to be taking some form of performance enhancing drugs. These additional (Bonds) spectators alone bring over $15M into the stadium's coffers. For his part Bonds is currently on a five year contract with $72M guaranteed over four years and then a further $18M in the fifth year depending on his performance.
So here we have a sport known to be corrupted by drugs (and who knows what else) with one of its major stars noted for his arrogance and generally unsavory character. Yet the crowds flock to the game creating huge revenue to make a lot of players and team owners very rich. Meanwhile baseball's ruling body meekly turns a blind eye to the serious issues unable (or unwilling) to deal with them. Quite simply, money rules.
In sharp contrast to baseball (and just about every other professional sport), cycling is tackling the issue of drugs head on. Since 2005 dozens of athletes have been removed from competition after failing drug tests. And it is not just the small fish that get caught. Roberto Heras, Tyler Hamilton, Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Floyd Landis and Alexander Vinokourov have all entered the “Hall of Shame”. Naturally each of these athletes have proclaimed their innocence and vowed to prove the tests wrong. They have engaged legions of scientists and highly paid lawyers who have collectively been unable to prove their clients innocence.
Rumbling on in the background are cases like Operacion Puerto which not only point the finger at specific athletes but also expose a whole community of unscrupulous ‘doctors' and others willing to help improve riders race performances for a sizeable fee. WADA and national criminal anti-drug organizations are painstakingly working to unmask the villains while media hounds grab tiny morsels of information to create sensational headlines. Most importantly the Operacion Puerto case illustrates how cycling has become both isolated and the whipping boy with respect to the evil of drugs in sport. It is said that over 200 athletes from numerous sports (not just cycling) are linked with the case. While many of the 50 or so cyclists on the list have been identified not a single athlete from any other sport has been implicated.
Perhaps the most astounding case in cycling's crusade against drugs came during the recent Tour de France. Michael Rasmussen had held the Yellow Jersey for nine days and then he seemed to seal his overall victory by winning Stage 16 atop the mighty Col d'Aubisque. Hours after the stage win his Rabobank team announced that they had withdrawn Rasmussen from the race and fired him from the team. At issue was the fact that Rasmussen could not (or would not) account for his whereabouts during June when he missed some out-of-competition drug tests.
For a team that has for many years dreamed of winning the Tour this was an astounding move. Apparently Rasmussen had lied to them and so they applied the “Zero Tolerance” and “Code of Ethics” policies recently agreed to by all Pro Tour teams. This act was akin to Bonds being fired by his baseball team on the eve of his record breaking series of home runs. Unthinkable!
Coming into the 2007 Tour de France there was much trepidation with respect towards public response to a sport that seems to be continually plagued by drug related scandals. As it transpired the first two days in England were an unbelievable success with an estimated three million people lining the roads of London and Southern England . Most of these good people knew little of cycling but were simply attracted to the grand spectacle. It is true to say that at that time none of the Tours drug related scandals had yet broken. However it was a fact that when anyone asked the question “so who won the Tour last year?” the answer was less than appealing.
Over the three weeks of the Tour, Sinkewitz, Moreni and Vinokourov were removed from the race after returning positive drug tests. Rasmussen avoided drug tests and apparently lied about his activities during June. These facts were translated as actions masking drug taking activities. The media had a field day predicting that the Tour and cycling in general was as good as dead.
The general public saw things very differently. By the time that the Tour ended in Paris 15 million people were estimated to have lined the roads of England , Belgium , France and Spain to watch the race go by. Anyone watching the last four stages (after Rasmussen had left in disgrace) on TV could not help but notice the huge crowds at every town, village and categorized climb. As the baseball fan said of the Barry Bonds situation “I enjoy watching baseball but I've come to grips that some of the stuff is tainted.” It is clear that the fans take exactly the same attitude towards cycling.
For those fans unable to physically be standing on the roads of France to watch the race there was a plethora of media possibilities. Across the globe TV ratings for Tour 07 returned viewership numbers equaling or exceeding last years numbers. On key stages TV audience share was well over 50% in most European countries and Australia (rooting for Cadel Evans). These are dream numbers for TV stations trying to attract advertisers. Major internet web sites carrying the Tour also reported incredible numbers as did the press who had a field day focusing on the drug related scandals.
It is clear that while journalists all over the world spent much time during the Tour writing cycling's epitaph, the public were mostly unimpressed with their rhetoric. Cycling as a sporting spectacle is as popular as ever, and not only at the Tour. Images from numerous important races since the Tour unfailingly show huge crowds along the race routes and massed at the race finish lines. It is also a fact that the sale of bicycles all over the world are at record levels. In particular the demand for high end road bikes is creating waiting lists sometimes extending into many years.
While other sports shamefully make little more than a token effort to deal with drugs, cycling should continue its efforts with increasing vigor. It is not a pleasant crusade and it creates a lot of negative press for the sport. However ultimately the sport will win and the crowds will turn out in even greater numbers. Testing procedures with proven efficacy and policies like ‘Zero Tolerance' and the Pro Tour ‘Code of Ethics' will most hopefully make life for the cheats (riders, doctors, team personnel) impossible.
At the end of Stage 1 of the Tour in Canterbury , England a local radio commentator was obviously in awe of the whole spectacle. He was not a cycling specialist and by his commentary it was clear that he had not seen the Tour before. The sight of nearly 200 racing cyclists in full cry through the center of town was described as the greatest sporting sight that the commentator had ever witnessed. On that great day Canterbury had possibly never seen so many people crammed into its narrow streets.
Whether in a city center, out in the open country, on a track or in the high mountains, cycling is a unique sport with immense spectator appeal. And so long as the sport continues the fight to eliminate the loathsome cheats, the crowds will flock to see this wonderful spectacle.
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