Thursday, May 25, 2006

Liberty Seguros pulls sponsorship

If you haven't been following the Giro lately, you may have missed the big bombshell that dropped today. Liberty Seguros announced Thursday it's immediately ending its multi-million-dollar sponsorship with the ProTour team while Spanish authorities are reporting that as many as 200 riders and athletes could be implicated in a widespread doping network. Liberty made a good faith effort to support the sport of cycling. Roberto Heras was caught red-handed with EPO last year, and they stood by the team. But when the team manager himself, Manolo Saiz, was caught with a bag of frozen blood and over 60,000 Euro that was the end of their short lived foray into sponsoring pro cycling.

There's a part of me that understands why cyclists do it. It's the part of me that's currently tired. Tired of riding, tired of working, tired of doing much of anything right now. I need a break. Pro riders need breaks too. But when you're getting paid big money to ride your bike, you get on and ride. And you ride through the pain, and the tiredness. And maybe you think it's OK to just take a little something. Something to take the edge off, help you get over the hump. Plus, nearly everybody else is doing it. How else can they compete at this level?

There's also a part of me that's pissed off. It's so damn stupid, this constant shadow that pro cycling has to labor under. Every time the cycling community seems to be putting out a consistent 'doping is bad' message something like this seems to come along and pull the rug out from under that. Like the Festina fiasco in 1998. And countless other smaller charges. Like Heras. Don't they get it? If this keeps up, more and more sponsors may pull a Liberty and pull out. There won't be a pro cycling circut left to compete on.

And who gets hurt? Everybody. Last year Alexandre Vinokourov, tired of playing second fiddle to an aging Jan Ullrich, jumped ship from T-mobile to Liberty Seguros hoping to become the main contender for his team in July in the Tour. The plucky little bastard was a thorn in many of the Tour's GC leaders on more than one occasion, and that was without his team's full support. Imagine how much fun it was going to be to watch him attack with a team surrounding him. But now that Seguros is out, it's questionable whether he'll even get the opportunity to ride in the Tour this year. Odds are good that if he does, it won't be as the lead rider for a team but instead back in a supporting role. This lessens the race for everybody, athletes and fans alike.

It's hard to say whether sport can truly be drug free in this day and age. There are so many enhancers being developed, and it's impossible to test for them all. Barry Bonds just surpassed Babe Ruth's home run record. In the eyes of many, it will be a tainted record because of his drug use. Mark McGuire is living with the same issue. If Lance Armstrong is ever proven guilty of doping, legions of fans will villify him. But it was probably the same back at the original Olympics, and even further back when the first caveman decided to race his buddy to that tree over on the next hill. I'm sure that, while EPO and anabolic steroids didn't exist, since the beginning of sport athletes have looked for an edge. Whether it was something as simple as trying to get a slight advantage at the starting line in a foot race to spending millions of dollars doing wind tunnel testing of bicycles and riding positions. We're human beings, and to some level or another we're competitive by nature. It just seems that we never know when to say it's too much. Another human trait, I guess.


Jon said...

I’m not sure I can really blame pro athletes for practicing “better living through chemistry.” Or doping. Or whatever.

We cross a line at paying folks to play sports, so why draw a mythical one at drug use or doping? Why not allow them access to ALL the tools they need to compete in today's environment?

Tim said...

Call me an old-timer if you want to, but I still think the beauty of sport lies in what the human body can accomplish through hard work and training. Open the door to unchecked use of drugs and you not only change the nature of sport, but you'd better be ready for the carnage of people pushing the envelope: There would be gruesome injuries and probably a few deaths related to extreme abuse of the "enhancers."

Can bicycling go drug-free? Maybe, but only if it imposes rigid testing and lifetime bans for cheaters. Real lifetime bans, not suspensions followed by decisions by governing bodies to allow racers back into the peloton. Use drugs and you're retired. Period. End of career, end of story.

The cost of cheating has to be drastic, because as long as chemists and doctors are willing to use athletes as guinea pigs, someone will always find a way to stay one step ahead of the testing protocols.