By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
In 2004, Millar became cycling's highest-profile casualty. Another scandal struck in May 2006 when Spanish police raided a Madrid medical clinic and discovered more than 200 bags of blood, transfusion equipment, anabolic steroids, EPO and other doping products, along with coded lists that implicated more than 50 of the world's top cyclists.
Nine riders caught up in the so-called Operation Puerto investigation were forced to withdraw from the 2006 Tour de France, including 1997 winner Jan Ullrich, a German, and 2006 Giro d'Italia winner Ivan Basso, an Italian.
American Floyd Landis, who won the 2006 Tour, subsequently was stripped of his title after drug tests during the race came back positive for elevated levels of testosterone. He is the only rider to lose a medal for doping in the Tour's 105-year history.
Then came last year's Tour. Pre-race favorite Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan and his Astana team were expelled five days before the July 29 finish when Vinokourov, the 2006 Spanish Vuelta winner, tested positive for a banned blood transfusion. The next day, the rider who had worn the prestigious yellow jersey for eight days as the race's leader, Michael Rasmussen of Denmark, was forced to withdraw for lying about his whereabouts when he missed two out-of-competition drug tests earlier in the year. The same day, Italian cyclist Cristian Moreni was arrested by French police shortly after crossing the day's finish line for failing a drug test; his entire team pulled out of the race.
The British press dubbed it the "Tour de Farce." Two German television stations stopped their coverage of the race, as did a Swiss daily. France's Soir newspaper ran an obituary saying the Tour had died "at age 104, after a long illness."
Jean-Francois Lamour, vice president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), an independent organization created in response to the Festina scandal to coordinate the international fight against doping in sports, suggested that cycling be withdrawn from the Olympics.
In an interview, Tour de France chief Prudhomme said that the drug problem in cycling "is no different than in any other sport," but its aggressive testing and public stance to combat doping have helped make cycling "the black sheep of sports."
Unlike the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and other professional sports, cycling does not have a strong players' union that fights against testing and works to keep the results private.
"Cycling is the only sport that has addressed the problem head-on -- it's not just a congressional hearing and a few USA Today headlines," said former U.S. cyclist Jonathan Vaughters, director and part owner of the American cycling team Slipstream, which has adopted one of the toughest anti-drug postures in cycling.
Millar, who served a two-year suspension, is now back in the saddle as an outspoken anti-doping advocate. Watching the drug scandals unfold during last year's Tour de France, he said he was angry, frustrated and depressed. He had staged a comeback not only for personal redemption, but because he realized how much he really loved the sport, and he hoped other riders could learn from his experiences.
But apparently nothing had changed. The riders, the teams, the sponsors, cycling officials "didn't get the message," he said.
Millar understood the mind-set. In 1999, when he was 22, just a year after the Festina affair, the members of his team were using EPO and trouncing their rivals, "and no one cared because we were winning, and it was literally hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil," he said.
Millar took the yellow jersey in the opening stage of the 2000 Tour de France, beating American cycling great Lance Armstrong, who won the Tour a record seven times in a row and was dogged by doping allegations for much of his career. People were telling Millar that he, too, could win the Tour de France one day, "and I was thinking, there's no way I can win the Tour de France unless I'm doping."
Millar eventually became the leader of a team himself, "and I had a lot of people counting on me for results. The team was supposed to look after me, but they didn't care, and the sport was not trying very hard to stop doping, and people were getting caught and getting just six-month suspensions, and it got to the point where it didn't seem to mean anything. My value system got all mixed up. I came into the sport bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and that got stripped away."
He confessed because of the alternative: "I knew that whatever happened, for the rest of my life I would be living a lie." When he came clean, "It was like a huge weight was lifted off of me.
"I blamed the culture, but I also accepted what I did. It's a fine balance -- putting your finger up and accepting your own guilt."
This year, Millar is racing on Vaughters's new Slipstream team, of which he is part owner. The American team, which keeps a base in Girona, Spain, about 50 miles northeast of Barcelona, has had difficulty finding a big-name sponsor willing to accept the risks of being associated with cycling, Vaughters said, and that is willing to contribute the roughly $8 million a year it would cost to sponsor the team.
Under Slipstream's $500,000-a-year testing program, Vaughters said, every rider is tested about every two weeks for doping violations; unlike the secrecy that surrounds other doping tests in cycling, Slipstream offers to make all its test results public.
Prudhomme, the Tour de France director, said the organizers offered a surprise invitation for Slipstream to race in this year's Tour "because we like their philosophy, particularly in terms of their ethics and anti-doping measures." The team also will compete on Sunday at the CSC Invitational, a 62-mile race held at the Clarendon Metro stop in Arlington.
"I'm very representative of my sport. I cheated, and that's it," Millar said. "For the last decade, it's been affair after affair, story after story, admission after admission, and the fans are finally giving up. But the doping culture is turning into an anti-doping culture, and in five years, we are going to be at the vanguard of anti-doping and ethical sponsorship. It will no longer be -- just take our $5 million, put our name here, and we don't care what happens. We could be an example for all sports."
Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.