Professional road cycling has endured several years of opprobrium, drawn and quartered in the court of public opinion and used as a cautionary tale when it comes to doping and other sporting malfeasance. However, a series of recent events signal that the tide may be turning as a greater context emerges.
We all know about the troubles in cycling and we’ve had to endure as the mad, bad and deluded fans and officials in other sports tell us how horrible our sport is while theirs is "the game they play in heaven", unsullied and pure in motive with athletes who perform weekly on bread, water and momma’s home cooking alone.
No sport exists in a vacuum, each is a part of a greater whole and ours was a very small slice of that, which of course made it a very big target, easy to dismiss and easy to ridicule with zero cost to the big sporting codes, a convenient whipping boy.
But we may be witnessing a shift as three major sports wake up to reality and we, in cycling, enjoy a moment of schadenfreude.
Football is mired in a massive match fixing scandal (Video) that makes the ‘chop’ organised by Alexandre Vinokourov and Alexandr Kolobnev for the 2010 Liege Bastogne Liege victory look almost quaint in comparison. Then there is the doping, with one of cycling’s well known enablers, Dr Eufemiano Fuentes, who is currently on trial in Spain for crimes against public health, admitting during the latest round of the original 2006 Operation Puerto investigation, that he had indeed worked with athletes from that sport. The stored blood bags in Madrid are slowly leaking the truth.
Tennis is another sport suddenly taking an interest in doping and it too has had problems in the past with players match fixing. On the court the sport has risen to unbelievable levels of play, with superhuman, dare I say ‘extraterrestrial’, performances now a regular occurrence and players, male and female, increasingly sporting physiques to match those seen in the National Football League (NFL). Cycling has learned to view these kinds of epic performances with a cautious eye. Will tennis? The infamous Dr Fuentes also has a starring role here after admitting he had also worked with tennis players.
Then there is the native Australian Football League (AFL) and Essendon, which over the past three days has been reeling from one own goal to another on the issue of doping and recreational drug cover-ups, not to mention past allegations of the tanking of matches.
First there was the league-wide illicit drugs policy which today looks more like a public relations device to protect the sport than one to assist players in trouble, then Essendon’s problem with ‘supplements’ administered by a ‘sports science guru’, including the injection of substances unknown to players on that team.
The so-called sports scientist at the centre of this, Steven Dank, and Essendon’s fitness coach Dean Robinson are reported to have met with Doctor Robin Willcourt, who runs an anti-ageing medical practice in South Yarra, Melbourne. Dr Willcourt is quoted in The Age newspaper as saying “I don't believe things like testosterone and growth hormone are not illegal if they are prescribed properly because there are ways of doing blood testing to monitor the levels. If you can monitor the levels and keep them in the normal range, I think these things should be available so elite athletes are given the same protection as any other person out there.”
Then there is retired Essendon player Mark McVeigh who in an rambling defence (Audio) of his former club said he was "shocked" and "surprised" at the allegations, claimed he was only prescribed vitamins and described ex-team-mate Kyle Reimers, who had recently questioned the team’s use of ‘supplements’, as “disgruntled”.
"Kyle Reimers has come out and said things that are untrue," said McVeigh. “He's a disgruntled player that was delisted from the football club that very rarely turned up to pre-season training in any sort of form that resembled a professional footballer.”
Deja-vu? Groundhog Day? Stop me if you haven’t heard all this before.
So what is going on? Well simply put there is doping, cheating and lying in football, tennis and the AFL, and other sports, just as there is in cycling.
Today the Australian Crime Comission (ACC) said illicit drug use by professional athletes was more prevalent than had been indicated by sports drugs testing programs.
The report found that organised crime had an expanding role in providing banned substances to athletes, and this was facilitated by some coaches and support staff.
As cycling fans we can now take cold comfort that we are not alone, it’s someone else’s turn to experience that shattering loss of innocence that eventually leads to cynicism, but that does not mean we have a right to be smug.
With doping, our sport has a massive decades-long problem deeply embedded in its culture, despite officials and riders insisting that it is a generational thing and 2006 was a ‘year zero’ where no one who came after Lance Armstrong ever tapped a vein. Every rider in cycling is touched by doping, lying and cheating, if not indirectly via guilt by association, then directly with loss of career, income and victories.
Still let us enjoy this moment of schadenfreude, if only until the next positive drugs test by one of our personal favourites or belated admission by a much loved retired star.