Sport is finally waking up to the full extent of of its drugs problem—but the battle is far from won. Plus newspapers should remember that football is not the only game in townby Geoffrey Wheatcroft / January 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
Life after doping
When Jonathan Aitken was asked to chair the Tory party’s inquiry on penal reform, there was some derision at the idea of a former jailbird in this role. On the other hand, Paul Cavadino of the rehabilitation charity Nacro thought that his experience made him all the better qualified: “Ex-prisoners have a key role to play in improving the rehabilitation of offenders.” And so it might be that at a time when the battle against doping is the most important question in sport, above all in cycling, another kind of former offender is the man to set an example.
At least, that seems to be the reasoning behind the choice of David Millar as leader of Slipstream-Chipotle, the new bike racing team, on his return after a two-year suspension for doping. One of the best British cyclists of his generation, Millar was time-trial world champion, and won the prologue of the 2000 Tour de France two seconds ahead of Lance Armstrong. And then, as a Victorian moralist might have said, he fell.
In recent years, one sport after another has been ravaged by drugs, a fact acknowledged with varying degrees of honesty. Baseball shut its eyes and ears as evidence of steroid use mounted, until the scandal engulfing Barry Bonds became a national front-page story. Athletics shrugged its shoulders at Ben Johnson, but couldn’t at Marion Jones, not when she finally owned up and returned her Olympic gold medals.
Indeed, confession is in fashion, what with Bjarne Riis admitting this year that he had been doping when he won his frankly inexplicable victory in the 1996 Tour de France, and saying sadly that they could come and take his yellow jersey back. That once great race has very nearly lost all credibility after not a trickle but a torrent of scandals. The 2007 tour saw both the pre-race favourite and the rider in the race leader’s yellow jersey slung out. Even the man left standing—Alberto Contador, the quite unforeseen winner—is shrouded in suspicion.
With such a culture, it’s easy to understand, if not condone, what happened to Millar. He rode clean up to the 2000 season, he says, but the pressure on him intensified. He was surrounded by other riders illicitly but flagrantly using EPO (erythropoietin), the synthetic hormonal drug that enhances red blood cells, but that also has a tendency to kill you by…