Source: Toronto Star (Canada)
Pubdate: Sat, 1 Aug 1998
Author: Ian Austen


Scandal sends French cycle classic into a spin

Canadian cycling great Steve Bauer knew something was up when he suddenly
found himself unable to keep up with some of his European competitors.

Riders with previously mediocre careers suddenly became contenders,
competing with flair and E9lan in some of the world's greatest feats of
cycling endurance, including the global classic, the Tour de France.

When asked by reporters what brought about the transformation they would
cite special ``preparation'' or a weight training program developed by
their physician.

It wasn't long, however, before even the most naive knew exactly what
``preparation'' meant.

Bauer, a now-retired former Tour de France leader, said the effects of such
preparations were noticeable.

``In the early '90s I started having problems keeping up,'' he recalled in
an interview this week. ``That was partly problems with my personal
health,'' he conceded, ``but there were also advances in technology going

As this year's Tour de France staggers to a close in Paris tomorrow, it
will have the smallest number of finishers in 15 years.

The problem now - as it was in Bauer's time - is the shocking use of
performance-enhancing drugs, a scandal that has brought the French down
from their World Cup high of earlier this month.

Five of 21 teams have abandoned the 1998 Tour, and one leg saw just 102
competitors gather at the start line - down by nearly half from the 189 who
began the race in Dublin two weeks ago.

The spectre of drug use - and the accompanying strip searches, midnight
hotel raids and all-night interrogations as police try to get a handle on
it - has devastated both the race and France itself.

The race has been overshadowed by images of riders and team directors being
driven away in unmarked police cars and days of demonstrations by the
cyclists still competing.

Cycling's most important event, the Tour de France has become, as a
headline in the Paris newspaper Liberation put it, ``The Big Flat.''

For a sport that depends heavily on advertising sponsorships fixing that
puncture will be vital.

Tackling the issue of performance-enhancing drugs is at the top of the
fix-it list.

One of the biggest advances - the red-cell booster erythropoietin, or EPO -
has pushed no-names into the front ranks of cycling's elite.

The morality of cheating aside, the biggest problem with EPO is that it can

Blood with too many red cells can thicken into a syrup that's too much for
the heart to pump, especially during sleep, or create fatal clots.

Between 1987 and 1990, 18 racing cyclists in Holland and Belgium died from
unexplained heart failure. The assumption - then strongly rejected by the
International Cycling Union (UCI) - was that they had used EPO without a
doctor's supervision.

The ever-widening investigation into abuses of a whole new category of
performance-enhancing drugs by cyclists was a scandal waiting to happen.

At the heart of the investigation are drugs, including EPO, that come from
the cutting edge of biotechnology.

They are also, as the current crisis at the Tour suggests, an irresistible
temptation for cheaters - producing significant performance gains with no
danger of being caught by the current testing system.

Swiss star Alex Zuelle started the Tour as a leading contender but wound up
in a jail cell in northern France. After confessing to EPO abuse, Zuelle
apologized but pointed out that everyone in the cycling world knew what has
been going on for more than a decade.

``I had two possibilities: I could also go along with this or I could quit
and go back to being a house painter,'' Zuelle told a Swiss newspaper this

While the current controversy centres on riders and team directors, its
aftermath will focus attention on both the UCI and the International
Olympic Committee, the two organizations ultimately responsible for
controlling doping.

Some critics blame the epidemic on bureaucratic inertia, a willingness to
turn a blind eye to avoid unpleasantness and legal fears. They say these
factors have combined to prevent the introduction of tests for catching the
use of modern biotechnology as an illicit performance enhancer.

Dr. Guy Brisson, a scientist who recently retired from the Montreal
anti-doping lab affiliated with l'University de Quebec, helped developed a
test for EPO over two years ago but was unable to convince the IOC and UCI
to adopt it.

The reason, he charges, is that both organizations have a conflict of interest.

``Everybody knew what was going on for years,'' Brisson, an
endocrinologist, said from his home in Trois Rivires. ``But the arguments
they were against the test made it clear they didn't really want to catch
athletes. It's always going to be the same if your responsibility is to
both promote a sport and be a watchdog.''

EPO arrived on the cycling scene in the latter part of the 1980s when the
sport was revolutionizing its training.

Until then, training programs were usually developed by retired riders who
suggested doing more or less what had worked for them during their careers.

But Italian star Francesco Moser showed the way to the future when he
worked with Italian sports medicine specialists to apply formal science to
his training.

It worked for Moser, who wound up his career by breaking the distance
record for one hour's riding - one of cycling's most difficult feats.

Many top-ranked riders began hiring their own personal physicians and
worked with them to develop training plans. Big-budget teams brought
scientists and physicians to serve everyone.

Those training plans included many valid practices. But gradually and very
quietly, many of the same programs also came to include new
biotechnological products such as EPO.

First developed to treat anemia, EPO is a cloned version of the hormone
that turns on red blood cell production in the bone marrow.

More red cells mean more oxygen in the blood. The effect is exactly like
fanning the flames of a camp fire. One disputed study estimates a
performance improvement of 10 per cent through EPO use - an enormous boost
for elite level athletes.

Drug abuse is not a problem confined to cycling.

``In any professional sport, not just cycling, there are guys who are going
to cheat. That's human nature,'' said Gord Fraser, another Canadian cyclist
who rode in the Tour last year and is now based in the United States.

Unlike other sports, however, a shattering crisis in the Tour forced
cycling to adopt widespread dope testing three decades ago.

Then, it was a highly publicized death that prompted action.

During the 1967 Tour, Britain's Tommy Simpson, a former world champion,
collapsed and died on a hot afternoon while climbing a difficult mountain.
The subsequent autopsy revealed amphetamines in his system. Testing,
despite massive opposition from riders, began the following season.

The trouble is that when it comes to EPO and other genetic creations, the
current testing system is largely worthless. EPO isn't passed through
urine, the current sampling medium. And even if it were, as a cloned
natural hormone it wouldn't be picked up by traditional dope tests which
look for synthetic substances.

Even worse, to be effective, EPO must be injected long before races and
gone from the body before dope testing time. As an interim measure, the UCI
began measuring randomly selected riders' blood cell counts before races.
Those with a count of more than 50 per cent are sent packing as a health
and safety measure.

However, the whole point of EPO use is to obtain an ideal level of about 48
to 49 per cent. Brisson and others believe that many riders caught with the
current screening are simply dehydrated, not EPO users.

Brisson's test attempted to get around the current system's problems by
looking for a lingering secondary effect of EPO use that can be tracked
with blood samples and antibody testing - a standard procedure in

The scientific journal Nature reviewed and published the test which was
also developed by a l'University de Quebec blood specialist Raynald Gareau.

Then the frustration began.

At several meetings, officials from the UCI and IOC expressed their fear
that the test's indirectness made it vulnerable to legal challenge by
millionaire athletes. ``It was too easy for them to say that because then
nobody is accused of using EPO,'' Brisson said.

Eventually Brisson gave up. ``Throughout that world you see all kinds of
conflicts. I'm glad to be on the outside now because you get contaminated
by these people. And there are so many things to do outside doping.''

The question now is whether the current crisis will force cycling's
establishment to take real action.

Brisson, for one, doesn't think that's possible without the creation of a
well-funded, fully independent organization to run dope testing programs.

Bauer agrees.

``It comes down to the fact that sport governing bodies have left products
like this on the loose for too long.''

For former ski star Jean-Claude Killy, president of the Society du Tour de
France, and the race's director general, Jean-Marie Leblanc, the current
public relations nightmare may have significant business consequences.

Sixty-five per cent of the Tour's $65 million budget comes from sponsors.
Coca-Cola, for example, pays large sums to have its name plastered over
every conceivable surface at the finish line while Nike buys the right to
adorn the race leader's yellow jersey with its swoosh.

Similarly, all of the teams in the race exist only because companies are
willing to pay to use riders' as rolling billboards.

So far no sponsor has publicly abandoned the sport. But the crisis will
undoubtedly make negotiations for next year difficult and may spell the end
of some teams.

Despite all the challenges that lie ahead, no one's predicting the Tour's end.

``Obviously this has damaged the Tour,'' said Fraser.

``But the Tour's bigger than that. It will recover, just like Canada did
after Ben Johnson. But hopefully when it goes on, it will be a little

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Checked-by: (Joel W. Johnson)