The 93rd Tour de France, scheduled to begin tomorrow with a 7.1 km time trial in Strasbourg, was rocked today by scandal. The biggest news is that the two biggest favorites for this year's Tour, Jan Ullrich, the only active rider in the world with a Tour victory under his belt, and his chief rival, Ivan Basso, who just won Italy's Grand Tour in May, are both out of the race, along with an as yet undetermined number of other riders.
The scandal began in late May ...
Operacion Puerto, as the investigation is now called, also implicated a former team doctor, by the name of Eufamiano Fuentes. All of the riders either already excluded or in the process of being excluded from this year's Tour have been linked in some fashion with Fuentes, most commonly in written documents with sometimes cryptic entries,.
It's important to note that no smoking gun evidence has yet been revealed about any of these riders. Their teams, pending further developments, have suspended them. Thus, at least to this point, none of the riders were excluded by the Tour itself. One of the difficulties, however, is that the standard in cycling is not innocent until proven guilty. It is rather the reverse, and the burden of proof is almost always on the rider to prove innocence, rather than on the prosecution to prove guilt. Here is a quotation from Basso's director, Bjarne Riis (winner of the 1996 Tour de France): "I trust Ivan Basso, but now it is up to him and his lawyers to show he has nothing to do with this affair."
Reasonable doubt, from what I have seen in previous doping cases, does not apply. That is a US standard, not an international one. No cyclist wins an appeal based on reasonable doubt. It has to be scientifically established doubt, all but irrefutable.
This is the greatest scandal to hit cycling since the infamous Festina affair, which stunned the 1998 Tour and resulted in the exclusion of two teams during the race. Police raids on he teams during the race resulted in the riders staging protest strikes on Stage 12 and Stage 17 of that year's race. With race attrition, only 96 riders of the 189 starters finished the event.
This year's race was scheduled to begin with an identical number, but some estimates suggest that as many as 22 riders will be excluded before tomorrow's prologue. None of those riders may be replaced by their teams. so the Tour may begin with fewer than 170 riders.
Also implicated in Operacion Puerto is Tyler Hamilton, the American 2004 Olympic time trial gold medalist. Hamilton has been under suspension since 2004 for a blood doping violation in the 2004 Tour of Spain. He suspension will expire in time for the 2006 World Championships. It is unknown at this time if he will ride that race. Will USA Cycling select him to represent the US at World's? And following that race, will any team hire him? Since he is serving a two-year suspension, it is unlikely that any additional sanctions will be made against him, but it unquestionably causes further damage to his reputation. It was only on Tuesday that the Court of Arbitration for Sport (the highest court in the world for sporting issues) ruled that Hamilton could keep his Athens gold medal. Disputed results of blood tests at the Athens games suggested that Hamilton had blood-doped there, as well, but a mix up with the sample resulted in its being frozen, which made it impossible to test the backup sample to confirm the violation. Sadly, Hamilton's is perhaps the least valuable Olympic Gold Medal in the world today.
Lance Armstrong fans have noted that no Discovery team riders have been implicated in Operacion Puerto. Given the vehemence with which Armstrong and his legacy are under attack, it is likely that no Discovery riders have any connection with the current investigation in Spain. Armstrong's enemies would like nothing more than to see him dragged into this investigation.
What response the riders will make remains to be seen. It is likely that police jurisdictions around France, as they did in 1998, will conduct their own "raids" during the course of this year's race. Those raids are what prompted the strikes in 1998, since they totally disrupt the riders' routines and focus during what many say is the world's most demanding sporting event.
Experts speak about the difficulty in obtaining reliable information in times of war, using terms like "the fog of war." The Tour de France is completely enveloped in just such a fog today, and no one can predict what will emerge on the far side. Will this year's Tour be cancelled? Will the riders strike? Will riders withdraw in protest? What will happen with the sponsors? No sponsor signs a contract with a team these days without provisions allowing for their withdrawal in the event of a major doping scandal within the team. What sponsor, in the witch-hunt environment prevailing in the world of cycling, would choose to sponsor a professional cycling team?
What will become of those of us, who felt that, in the sport of cycling, we had found the world's most beautiful, most miraculous sport?
A complete (up-to-the-moment) list of links on Operacion Puerto may be found at the bottom of this cyclingnews.com story.However that list is updated with each new story which comes out, which, today, I am deeply disappointed to note, occurs almost hourly.
Update 3:22 pm ET: Astana-Würth, the team of Vinokourov, has left the Tour de France and will not compete in 2006. More updates every minute, it seems, in this terrible scandal.