Monday, July 14, 2008

"We're #3!": The Tour de France & Doping History

Yes, the Tour de France is the third most broadcast sporting event in the world (see previous post), behind the World Cup (#1) and the Olympics (#2)--all three founded by Frenchmen, as it turns out...

Since the Tour is on right now, and since I'm fighting jet-lag (and consequently getting up insanely early), I've been watching more than my share of it (broadcast at 5 AM in the U.S. on the Versus network).

Given the doping acumen of the Spanish (see doctor Fuentes and the Puerto affair), I was slightly relieved that Alejandro Valverde could not hang with the leaders in Monday's stage in the Pyrenees.

Then again, doping has been in the Tour as long as there has been a Tour.

This is in part a result of the Tour's original objectives.

The Tour began in 1903 primarily as a means to legitimate a sporting newspaper entitled "L'Auto" (a direct ancestor of the "L'Equipe"--printed on yellow paper, it was only fitting that the race leader should wear a yellow jersey). To sell more copies of their paper, race organizers needed to create heroes, men capable of performing extraordinary feats, of racing over unthinkable distances, of climbing impossibly high mountains. So they made the Tour de France one of the most difficult challenges in sport.

Cyclists ride over four hours a day during the Tour, a three-week long race that goes through three mountain ranges and grants riders only two rests days. In the early days, cyclists were not allowed to get help repairing their bikes, meaning they had to carry tools and parts with them as they rode, in many instances, through the night.

In 1924, defending champion Henri PĂ©lissier dropped out of the race to protest the draconian rules imposed on the riders (in those days, if someone pumped water for them to drink, it was a penalty; if they threw anything on the side of the road, they were penalized; if they did not meet minimum speed requirements, they would not be paid; etc.). He told a journalist that each rider had to take cocaine (for the pain), chloroform and a mysterious pill called "dynamite," just to survive (1). Five time champion Jacques Anquetil once famously said, "You can't complete the Tour on mineral water alone."

Taking drugs provided by soigneurs (the team assistant who saw to it riders were reading to go each day) was viewed as a professional responsibility. It wasn't until the late sixties that doping was officially banned from the Tour, and this only because drugs had become illegal in France in 1966 (2). Even after this, given the difficulties of the race, officials tacitly allowed doping to continue until the late nineties.

(As a point of contrast, Olympic marathoners were punished with disqualification very early in the 20th century for doping--mostly for taking strychnine and cognac).

One hundred years of professional racing culture cannot change over night. And the race has not gotten easier over the years. Consequently, "doctors" will certainly continue to play a role in the Tour de France's outcome for some time.

But what a media spectacle! #3 in the world...

(1) Dauncey, Hugh and Geoff Hare. The Tour de France 1903-2003. Frank Cass: London, 2003. Page 87.
(2) Same book. Page 191.


Anonymous said...

Corry - I'm not given to following sports of any kind, really, but I have a colleague across the hall who has been regalling me with Tour de France stories. I do love the concept of blood doping and wonder if it would work for academics.

Corry Cropper said...

Colleagues have actually accused me of being "on the juice" because of my endurance in committee meetings and my tirelessness when it comes to making inane comments in department meetings.

Like Armstrong, "I have never tested positive for any banned substances." Instead, like Ricardo Ricco (Italian cyclist for Saunier Duval who has naturally occurring high levels of hematocrit), I simply have a naturally elevated tolerance for B.S.

Derek said...

My wife better not read this or take it the wrong way, but I think "doping" is typically allowed in marriage. Whether it is in the form of ESPN, college football saturdays, March Madness, etc. we need that 'numbing' effect at times to tune out our household.