Cycling's Drug Test
Thursday, May 29, 2008
GIRONA, Spain Scottish cycling star David Millar was sitting in a restaurant with two friends when the French police came to bust him. The dinner intrusion was not entirely unexpected: It was June 2004, and Millar's French team was the target of a very public, five-month doping investigation.
The officers handcuffed Millar, who eight months earlier had won gold in the world time-trial championship, and took him back to his apartment. As the police searched his home, the lanky 27-year-old sat in the living room, confident, even cocky. They had nothing, he figured.
Then in a flash of panic, he remembered the two syringes on his bedroom bookshelf. When the police found them, Millar's life changed forever.
Sitting in a French jail cell over the next 47 hours, "I realized I hated cycling," Millar said in a recent interview. Although he was drawn to the sport by its profound beauty, cycling's ingrained culture of doping -- accepted by riders, sponsors, team managers and officials at the highest levels -- had helped transform him "into a cold chemical cheater."
Millar admitted to police that he had used the banned blood-booster erythropoietin, or EPO, three times in 2001 and 2003. Within weeks, he lost everything he'd worked for -- his world title, Tour de France and Olympic medal prospects that summer, $650,000-a-year salary, his home, his team, his self-respect.
Today, the entire sport of cycling is where Millar was four years ago. Rocked for decades by drug scandals -- most recently during last year's Tour de France, cycling's marquee event -- the sport has hit rock bottom, according to riders, managers, cycling officials and analysts. And with this year's Tour de France and Summer Olympics approaching, the sport can either come clean and heal itself, or continue to self-destruct.
"At the end of last year's Tour de France, everyone in the cycling world -- teams, riders, organizers -- got together and said it can't continue this way, and if it does, we're not going to have a professional sport left," said Pat McQuaid, president of the International Cycling Union (UCI), the sport's governing body.
Cycling is being criticized by fans, media members, sponsors and anti-doping advocates for fostering an illegal drug culture and a code of silence to protect it, and according to McQuaid, "The UCI has got the message." The organization is increasing the number of surprise out-of-competition drug tests -- the ones that often snare cheaters -- from 170 in 2006 to a projected 10,000 this year, and its anti-doping budget has grown from $2.4 million last year to $8.5 million in 2008.
The magnitude of the problem is staggering. Since 1995, every winner of the Tour de France, the Spanish Vuelta and Giro d'Italia -- the triple crown of professional cycling -- has been implicated in doping, although many of the accusations have never been proven and most of the winners profess their innocence. Over the same period in those races, all but 15 of the riders who collected the 117 first-, second- and third-place medals have had doping allegations leveled against them.
"There were lots of warning signs, but they turned a blind eye to it for too many years," said John Wilcockson, the editor of VeloNews, a cycling magazine and Web site.
The extent of the problem became public during the 1998 Tour de France, when the entire nine-man French Festina team was expelled from the race after a team car was found packed with more than 400 doping products, including EPO, at a France-Belgium border crossing. The team director later admitted to employing a systematic doping program for his riders. Police subsequently raided the hotel rooms of other teams, and six teams dropped out of the race.
"Ten years after the Festina affair, if everyone had wanted to do something about it, the problem would be fixed," said Christian Prudhomme, the director of the Tour de France. But instead, the techniques for doping stayed one step ahead of the technology to catch it, Prudhomme and others said, and the continued widespread use of drugs was protected by a code of silence.