Turbulent Year Ends with Uncertain Future!

Turbulent Year Ends with Uncertain Future!
Posted by FoM on January 01, 1999 at 21:16:56 PT

PARIS Professional cycling began 1998 in expectancy and ended it, according to the Tour de France's race director, facing extinction. The doping scandals that marred the Tour were of such magnitude that they not only overshadowed cycling, but proved to be a catalyst for doping controversies in other sports, such as soccer, and at the International Olympic Committee (IOC). 
Other sports have had their image tarnished by drug scandals, but none depends so heavily on a single event for its global reputation, as cycling does on the Tour. The Tour's travails began July 8, three days before the first leg, when French customs officials arrested Festina physiotherapist Willy Voet for transporting a stash of anabolic steroids and erythropoietin (EPO). The team was expelled from the race when sporting director Bruno Roussel admitted to the systematic use of banned drugs. But cycling's image was tarnished with drug revelations almost daily. Cyclists began to complain of brutal police tactics. Their frustration boiled over July 29, when they staged an unprecedented sit-in before the 17th stage to Aix-les-Bains. "I can't race in this climate of permanent suspicion where we are taken for criminals," world No. 1 Laurent Jalabert said. By the end, six out of the 21 teams had pulled out, citing police tactics, leaving fewer than 100 riders from the original 189. Festina team leader and 1997 Tour runner-up Richard Virenque, one of two cyclists to maintain that he never knowingly took banned substances, took legal action against Voet, who publicly accused him of taking EPO and other substances. Voet response was to accuse Festina of "facilitating and inciting doping," outraging the Spanish watchmaker, and tell a French tabloid that Virenque received up to 100 injections a year. The pressure proved too much for Virenque, who was forced to quit the sport at the age of 29, unable to find a team to back him after breaking with Festina. Festina's Voet, Roussel and team doctor Eric Ryckaert, and two TVM officials - sporting director Cees Priem and doctor Andrei Mikhailov - remain under formal investigation, one step short of being formally charged. Now, professional cycling enters perhaps the most important year in its history, with federations desperate to repair the sport's tattered image in the eyes of the public, sponsors and governments. "Cycling must undergo a moral revolution - or disappear," warned Tour organizer Jean-Marie Leblanc. Some are disappointed by the sport's initial response. International Cycling Union (UCI) rules allow federations to ban cyclists who take drugs for up to a year. But the Swiss federation only handed out eight month bans to Alex Zuelle, Laurent Dufaux and Armin Meier - allowing them to compete in next year's Tour - and fines of 3,000 Swiss franc (US$2,164). Sponsors that bankroll the sport are nervous. 
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