Organizers of the Tour de France, the world's premier cycling race, announced today that five international riders, two team officials and one entire team will not be allowed to participate in this year's competition because of their association with doping.
Among those eliminated were leading French rider Richard Virenque, the Tour de France's runner-up in 1997, and Manolo Saiz, the director of the Spanish team ONCE, and Nicolas Terrados, the team's doctor. The Dutch team TVM also was barred from participating.
It was the most open indication yet that the sport in Europe may be rife with illegal, performance-enhancing drugs. The organizers said the situation was so bad they had considered canceling the 22-day race around France, which runs from July 3 to July 25. But they did not want to disappoint the 15 million people who watch it live and several billion in 160 countries who watch on television.
"The Tour de France only stopped during the two World Wars," said Jean-Claude Killy, president of the Tour de France organization. "We are looking for moral and ethically sporting guarantees so that the Tour de France can stay worthy of itself and assure its continuance."
The past 12 months have done little to erase the disgrace of the 1998 Tour de France, during which police searches at several team hotels turned up prohibited substances and several leading riders -- including Virenque -- quit the race part of the way through in protest of the searches.
Last month, a book by a former team masseur alleged widespread drug use by members of Festina, Virenque's former team, and the presumption has grown among observers of the sport that many professional riders use banned substances. The author, Willy Voet, named Virenque, among others; Virenque always has denied drug use.
"It's probably 90 percent" of the riders who used banned substances, said Voet, who is under judicial investigation in France for transporting a trunk of various types of performance-enhancing substances from Belgium into France just before the start of the 1998 Tour de France.
"Since my early years, [drug use] has always existed," Voet said in a telephone interview. "It's part of the culture of the sport. It's a very difficult sport, a sport of endurance. Those sports tend to have the most doping."
But "it was always so discreet, so hidden," he said. "No journalists saw it. I gave shots to the riders, so did the doctors. It was between us, like a family."
Reaction to today's exclusions was bitter. The owner of the team for which Virenque now rides, Polti of Italy, threatened to withdraw all his riders from the race. "It's a very dangerous decision for cycling in general and for the Tour de France," hardware magnate Franco Polti said. "You can't say `yes' to a team and `no' to one of its riders. It's something that really hurts. . . . Excluding Virenque will not solve the problem of doping.".
In Spain, a government official called the exclusion of the ONCE team director and doctor "inadmissible," and the government protested by letter to French Sports Minister Marie-Georges Buffet, according to French television. According to Reuters, Spanish Cycling Federation President Manuel Perez said: "I feel bad for the ONCE team and also for the individual [team director Manolo Saiz]. This is very serious for cycling."
Virenque issued a statement charging that he had been made a "scapegoat of a vast dossier of doping."
The scandal broke in 1998 when Voet, the Festina masseur and subsequent author, was arrested while driving from Belgium into France to catch a ferry to Ireland, where the Tour was starting that year (soccer's World Cup prevented the start from taking place in France). In Voet's car that day were 234 doses of EPO, a substance that raises the body's percentage of oxygen-carrying red blood cells; 80 flasks of growth hormones, 160 capsules of male hormones and 60 capsules of a blood-thinning product.
Since that time, no one, including any of those excluded from this year's race, has been convicted of using illegal substances, but investigations are ongoing. In France, in the aftermath of the 1998 Tour, 12 people are under judicial investigation, including the former president and vice president of the French Cycling Federation, Virenque, Festina's sports director, doctor, masseur and communications director.
Investigations also are ongoing in Italy.
Italian rider Marco Pantani, winner of last year's Tour de France, was expelled from this year's Tour of Italy two stages from the finish this month when his red-blood-cell level was found to be unusually high, a finding usually consistent with use of EPO. It is unclear whether he will compete in this year's Tour de France. Leading French rider Laurent Jalabert already has withdrawn from this year's Tour de France.
Virenque has become a focal point of French concern about drug use among cyclists. While polls indicate as many as 65 percent of French people support him, organizers had little good to say. "He crystallizes, in his person, in his name, the whole doping affair," said Jean-Marie Leblanc, director of the Tour. While specifically denying that organizers were finding Virenque guilty, he said: "He will not be welcome."