Dysfunctions, doping in cycling shouldn't create disillusionment
LONDON -- The U.S. press corps at the Tour de France has never been particularly large. Even in Lance Armstrong's heyday, the nature of media distribution networks enabled a few of us to report back to the whole country.
There were perhaps half a dozen American writers who covered the entire Tour and a handful of others who would parachute in halfway through when the mountain stages began, or puddle-jump over from Wimbledon or the British Open.
The numbers didn't change much in 2006, when we showed up to follow the Year-After-Lance storyline. Then Floyd Landis snagged the yellow jersey in a wide-open field depleted by doping busts, and the plot thickened. Landis rolled across the finish line last July 23 in first place and I boarded a plane a day later thinking that American interest in the race, while unlikely to return to Armstrong era-levels, would continue.
This year the scribes' contingent appears to be smaller, partly because travel budgets have tightened and partly because some of my colleagues have taken themselves out of the game, expressing disgust for the sport's eroding credibility. Fewer figure to follow the race from home.
I understand their disappointment. What I don't understand is their disillusionment.
If top cyclists are among the most-frequently-tested athletes in the world, I would submit that I am currently one of the most-frequently-lied-to reporters in the world. I have notebooks and floppy disks and hard drives full of interviews which I knew, or suspected, or would find out later were nonsense.
Riders and team directors and staff and entourage members have fibbed to me in multiple languages and met my gaze with their own open, seemingly genuine blue- or brown- or hazel-eyed stare, asking me to trust them.
No one has chosen to confess to me, and perhaps self-servingly, I don't think that's because I ask the wrong questions. It takes more guts than most of these guys have to spill to a person who's been with them on the trail every day, as opposed to a relative stranger -- sometimes for a tidy sum.
I'm not alone in wiping my shoes after walking through all this dishonesty. We've all been there, and most cycling writers I know have a rider or a case or a moment that toppled them into cynicism.
For the French writers, it was the 1998 Festina scandal. From the day Richard Virenque returned from his drug suspension to the day he retired, he didn't log one second of air time on Tour broadcasts without the accompaniment of a derisive Francophone chorus in the press room -- similar to the House of Lords' reaction to a speech they don't like.
The Germans came to grief with homeboy Jan Ullrich. David Millar's tumble from grace distressed the Brits, although his subsequent outspokenness has redeemed him at least in part.
But there haven't been a lot of Tour defections among European writers. They've hung in there, trying with various degrees of competence to chronicle an ethically and factually challenging story about a continental pastime. This might sound familiar to the folks being towed along on the distasteful Barry Bonds home-run chase.
Cycling is expendable for American writers. They could afford to bail when the fairy tales started to fall apart. They got ticked off when the likeable Tyler Hamilton was compromised; they felt burned when Landis' monumental Stage 17 became the centerpiece of an arbitration hearing rather than a coffee table book; and they are turned off by the continuing questions and debate about Armstrong. They seem to be taking things personally.
Most stories about doping are regrettably un-gettable while they're unfolding. In that way, being a cycling writer in 2007 is no different from covering municipal government or criminal justice or finance any time.
Think you don't know what's legitimate and what's not in a bike race? Cry me a river. How often does a City Hall scandal break the first time the mayor shovels a contract to a buddy? Are crooked judges exposed the first time they take a bribe? Do we know about insider trading or price-fixing instantly, as it's happening?
Just because we'd like sports to be a haven of escapism doesn't mean it is. Corruption in any field of endeavor generally has to build to a critical mass before it reveals itself, and usually takes a whistleblower to get the ball rolling.
Writers can do their part by refraining from godding up cyclists and by putting their feats into context. I'm not claiming I've always done this perfectly. Doping journalism has a steep learning curve.
We can write about teams with pockmarked histories or a remarkable surge in results. We shouldn't declare riders guilty until proved innocent, but we're entitled to rip them when they're shown to be charlatans.
People cheat across the board. We don't stop covering politics because candidates steal elections, we don't stop covering corporations because executives embezzle, and we keep writing love stories even though people stray from their partners. We shouldn't stop covering the Tour de France because some riders dope.
Anyone who bought into the myth-making ought to feel even more obligated to stick around and pay attention to the fallout. Doping and enforcement efforts obviously have immense implications for the sport's economics, for team dynamics and fan loyalty. And count me among the writers who believe that where cycling is now, racked with doubt, several major American sports are heading in the near future.
Endearingly dysfunctional cycling, with its back-biting, vindictive politics and secretive subcultures, is waving its dirty laundry like a flag. To me, that's a journalistic opportunity, not a letdown.
Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.