by John Hoberman, Ph.D.
Author of "Testosterone
Dreams: Rejuvenation, Aphrodisia, Doping"
Professor of Germanic Studies
University of Texas at Austin
In 1957 the celebrated Parisian man-of-letters Roland Barthes published
a short and clever essay called "The Tour de France as Epic." Barthes
saw the Tour as a profoundly symbolic (and therefore enormously appealing)
ordeal which, for the duration of the race, creates a caste of heroes
and villains that for sheer theatrical effect are second to none. Indeed,
the sheer intensity of the riders' suffering imposes on them a martyrdom
that brings them into contact with the supernatural forces that make
their extraordinary performances possible. "Jump," says Barthes, is
the mysterious burst of energy that seems to come from nowhere, "a veritable
electric influx which erratically possesses certain racers beloved of
the gods and then causes them to accomplish superhuman feats." But "jump"
also has "a hideous parody, which is called doping : to dope the racer
is as criminal, as sacrilegious as trying to imitate God; it is stealing
from God the privilege of the spark." And God, he adds, will have His
revenge on the dopers (1).
One can only imagine what this suave connoisseur of popular culture
would have had to say about the surreal disaster of the 1998 Tour if
he were alive today. He certainly would not have been offended by the
hypertrophic commercialism that plasters the riders with logos and squeezes
every last franc out of every possible contributor, including the villages
that pay up to $100,000 apiece for the privilege of having the show
pass through their town squares. After all, the Tour became a rolling
advertising caravan back in 1930 when its founder realized that he could
cover his costs by combining the sporting event with commercial promotions.
(2) The more interesting question is how Barthes would have reacted
to the definitive outing of the Tour as a virtual pharmacy on wheels.
For Barthes, as for the rest of us, the crucial question is: what (if
anything) did he know, and did he really care that men were stealing
the high-performance spark from their Creator?
The Tour debacle has finally made it acceptable to say in public
and without provocation what many have known for a long time, namely,
that long-distance cycling has been the most consistently drug-soaked
sport of the twentieth century. Even prior to the establishment
of the Tour in 1903, the six-day bicycle races of the 1890s were de
facto experiments investigating the physiology of stress as well as
the substances that might alleviate exhaustion. The advent of cycling
as a mass recreational and competitive sport during the 1890s came at
the end of a century that had seen many experiments designed to measure
the effects of (sometimes fatal) stress on animals, and in this sense
the six-day riders were continuing the work of experimental physiologists
who were interested in finding out just how much abuse the animal or
human organsm could take. Stress, trauma, and death -- the extreme outcomes
of sportive exertion -- had been studied by many physiologists before
doctors began to wonder about the medical consequences of extreme athletic
effort. Today the emotional distance that separates the sporting public
from the physiological ordeals of its heroes confirms that the high-performance
athlete is widely understood to be an experimental subject whose sufferings
are a natural part of the drama of sport. (3)
The history of modern doping begins with the cycling craze of the
1890s. Here, for example, is a description of what went on during the
six-day races that lasted from Monday morning to Saturday night: " The
riders' black coffee was "boosted" with extra caffeine and peppermint,
and as the race progressed the mixture was spiked with increasing doses
of cocaine and strychnine. Brandy was also frequently added to cups
of tea. Following the sprint sequences of the race, nitroglycerine capsules
were often given to the cyclists to ease breathing difficulties. The
individual 6-day races were eventually replaced by two-man races, but
the doping continued unabated. Since drugs such as heroin or cocaine
were widely taken in these tournaments without supervision, it was perhaps
likely that fatalities would occur." (4) It is, therefore, not surprising
that when the pioneering French sports physician Philippe Tissié performed
the first scientific doping experiments in 1894, his test subject was
a racing cyclist whose performances could be timed and who could be
primed with measured doses of alcohol or any other potential stimulant.
This is the early phase of the historical background against which
this year's Tour scandal must be understood. As one unblinkered observer
put it at the height of the furor: "For as long as the Tour has existed,
since 1903, its participants have been doping themselves. No dope, no
hope. The Tour, in fact, is only possible because -- not despite the
fact -- there is doping. For 60 years this was allowed. For the past
30 years it has been officially prohibited. Yet the fact remains: great
cyclists have been doping themselves, then as now." (6) This is essential
knowledge for understanding why the riders reacted as they did to the
unprecedented crackdown presided over by a Communist (female) health
minister in the cabinet of the socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin.
They were dumbfounded precisely because everyone involved, including
the press, had been playing the game for so long in the interest of
doing business as usual. And why does it matter that the health minister
("Joan of Arc") is a Communist? Because the only politicians in Europe
who want to deploy the long arm of the law against doping, whether in
France, Italy or Germany, are leftists or Greens who do not share the
sportive nationalism of their conservative countrymen -- the patriots
who have always been willing to look the other way in the interest of
keeping up with foreigners who just might be using drugs.
Caught wholly offguard and confronted by packs of insatiable reporters,
the riders improvised furiously at their impromptu press conferences,
groping for verbal formulas that would avoid outright lying while expressing
their outraged sense of having been violated and betrayed by people
and circumstances that had spun out of control. The Tour director joined
his disoriented charges in the desperate attempt to lay down a verbal
smokescreen that might fend off the humiliating concessions and confessions
that were now only days away. "It is a question of credibility and ethics,
the Tour must remain clean," said Jean-Marie Leblanc, general director
of the Société du Tour de France and former Tour rider, with Orwellian
cynicism. "Ten days from now in the Pyrenees," he said two days later,
"there will be as many spectators as ever. The admirable performances
and victories will prevail over everything else." (7) Leblanc's riders,
however, did not resort to such Olympic-style platitudes about maintaining
a nonexistent integrity or the ineluctable triumph of great sport. "The
hypocrites have got to shut up and look in the mirror," snarled Richard
Virenque, who made more than one threat about litigation. "We were thrown
out of the Tour for no reason whatsoever. You will be hearing from us
very soon." (8) "I am completely satisfied with what I can achieve with
my own physical ability," said the sincere and slippery Udo Bölts. (9)
"I do not want to represent a country that treats riders like dirt.
To hear people say that bicycle racing is the most corrupt sport is
pitiful," said the disillusioned Frenchman Stéphane Barthe. (10)
None of the riders confessed to doping -- until some of them fell into
the hands of the black-uniformed CRS police who were about to make doping
history of their own.
On 30 July Jean-Marie Leblanc commented on the results of these encounters:
"The riders have been traumatized by the conditions in which some of
them were interrogated." (11) At least a dozen riders, including the
four members of the TVM team who were extracted naked and dripping from
the showers, found themselves in a kind of extralegal hell that was
simply unprecedented in the history of sport. For there is no question
but that some riders were subjected to police measures that are sometimes
carelessly referred to nowadays as "Gestapo tactics." One account of
such an experience was offered by a Swiss member of the Festina team,
Alex Zülle: "In the beginning the officials in Lyons were friendly.
But on Thursday evening the horror show began. I was put in an isolation
cell and had to strip naked. I had to give up my belt, shoes, even my
glasses. They inspected every body cavity, including my rear end. The
night was bad, the bed was dirty and it stank. The next morning they
confronted me with the compromising documents they had found. The said
that they were used to seeing hardened criminals in the chair I was
sitting on. But is that what we are? I wanted out of this hellhole,
so I confessed." (12) "We're being treated like cattle," complained
Laurent Jalabert, and for a white Frenchman this was a novel experience.
(13) There are other residents of France, however, who are more familiar
with this style of police work. So on your next visit to Paris, dear
reader, ask the first North African streetsweeper you meet whether he
finds the Tour-busting behavior of the black-garbed CRS militia unusual.
The chances are pretty good that he has friends or relatives with similar
tales to tell.
While there is a strong case to be made that only state intervention
can save sport from its drug addiction, this sort of intervention
served that cause badly. It is true that, with few exceptions, it does
a society no good to ignore its own laws, and the French antidoping
law that was passed in 1965 achieved little if anything that came to
the attention of the outside world. Similarly, the Tour coexisted all
too comfortably with the antidoping law of 1989 for almost a decade
until 1998, when a dismssed and disaffected Festina employee decided
to pay back his former bosses by exposing their internal drug trafficking.
While there is good reason to argue that it was time to enforce the
law, it is also necessary to answer Alex Zülle's anguished question:
Was it right to treat him and other drugged riders as though they were
hardened criminals? Surely it was not, if only because the sudden (and
brutal) enforcement of a dormant law suggests bad faith on the part
of the state and the civil society it represents. Better candidates
for the isolation cell would have been Jean-Marie Leblanc or the Olympic
skiing champion Jean-Claude Killy, president of the Société du Tour
de France. The alternative was to reproduce in the world of cycling
what happens year in and year out in the world of track and field that
is administered by the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF)
and by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). While the athletes
are subjected to drug tests of less than certain validity, top officials
of little or no integrity are leading la dolce vita around the world.
According to Prof. Helmut Digel, the reformist president of the German
Track and Field Federation (DLV), the people responsible for the doping
crisis in Olympic sport are "those officials who have permitted parts
of the high-performance sportsworld to take on the characteristics of
an immoral subculture." "In this subculture," he continues, "which is
populated by people who feel right at home in the foyers of luxury hotels,
in VIP lounges, in first-class restaurants, and in the offices of many
marketing agencies, doping is treated as a minor indiscretion." (14)
This is the self-absorbed and rhetoric-bloated leisure class with which
Digel has been trying to coordinate doping control over the past five
years, and it has been a frustrating experience.
So who is it who goes to jail (or into the doping doghouse) for the
federation opportunists who travel the world collecting phony decorations
and fawning smiles from politicians looking for a chance to land the
next world championship? It is people like Alex Zülle, and that is why
we should listen to what they have to say about the doping scandals
in which they play the most vulnerable roles. Here, for example, is
Alex Zülle on ethical niceties and the nitty-gritty of making a living:
"I've been in this business for a long time. I know what goes on. And
not just me, everyone knows. The riders, the team leaders, the organizers,
the officials, the journalists. As a rider you feel tied into this system.
It's like being on the highway. The law says there's a speed limit of
65, but everyone is driving 70 or faster. Why should I be the one who
obeys the speed limit? So I had two alternatives: either fit in and
go along with the others or go back to being a house painter. And who
in my situation would have done that?" And here is Alex Zülle on how
lying becomes a habit: "When you don't tell the truth right away in
this sort of situation, then it becomes more than a white lie. It's
not really a matter of your personal self-interest. On the Festina team
we had a good team spirit, and nobody wants to wind up being the traitor.
You stick together in a very, very difficult situation and you want
to hold together as a group. And it's not something that only concerns
the riders making big money, you're talking about family men who are
making a living." (15) If the men who work the silver mines high up
in the Peruvian Andes can chew coca leaves to make it through their
workshifts, then why shouldn't the athletic coolie on a bicycle take
the drugs he needs to survival his ordeal? That is the logic of a sport
that is less a community than it is a labor camp.
For many years the standard line of the federation bureaucrats responsible
for doping control was that outside intervention, alias "state interference"
in the affairs of sport, was unnecessary. Now it appears that a least
some members of the sportsworld's ruling class are beginning to take
a different view of the matter. "Sport cannot possibly solve this problem
by itself," said Walther Tröger, president of the German National Olympic
Committee and a member of the IOC. "State agencies must also help."
(16) More significant than the views of this aging apparatchik are those
of Hans Wilhelm Gäb, the Opel executive who is in charge of distributing
$30,000,000 a year in sports sponsorship money in Germany. "When doping
becomes an obvious problem," he said during the Tour mess, "it is clear
that effective controls are lacking and there is no credible threat.
Only when doping is punished as a dishonest and criminal offence is
there a chance for a new beginning and that guarantee of equal opportunity
which enables sport to survive." Translation: state intervention is
indispensable if sport is to retain its social and commercial value.
Gäb's long interview in Germany's most important newsweekly is among
the most significant reactions to the Tour fiasco precisely because
he is a major player among the sponsors who make the whole circus possible,
and as sponsors go Gäb is in a class by himself as a critic of the establishment
he both needs and finances. "Hundreds of thousands of completely undoped
people pursue cycling as honest competition and as a fitness hobby,"
he said. "So we are talking about a small elite of officials, organizers
and riders who discredit sport in general and who are obviously unable
to clean up their own operation." Nor are the riders blameless: "The
cheating has long been a part of the system. When the wall of silence
came down, the riders got upset, not about the doping, but rather about
the investigative methods and the reporting about what was going on."
Part of Gäb's proposed solution, believe it or not, is that professional
sport be run more like ... a business: "Sometimes I wish that sport
had control-and-review systems comparable to those of big corporations."
The hole in Gäb's argument is the optimistic assumption that corporate
sponsors are going to insist on drug-free athletes whether or not they
are winners. "The sponsor," he claims, "promises money for high performance;
he does not encourage cheating. And he does not assume that people are
aiming at producing performances by means of illicit methods." And:
"Unprincipled high-performance slaves do nothing positive for the sponsors
who pay them; they are worth nothing to us." (18) This is fine rhetoric,
but it does not accord with reality in two important ways. First, sponsors
want to finance winners who, they hope, will not be caught doping; Gäb's
suggestion that there are high principles involved is not borne out
by any evidence I am aware of. Second, Gäb overestimates the risk to
corporations of sponsoring doped athletes. "Whoever tolerates doping,"
he warned, "ruins the image of his company." Alas, that is not the way
it works in the real world. Festina actually reported "that the scandal
had a positive effect on sales of its watches and that it would pay
the team's $5 million expenses again next year." (19) Call it the Howard
Stern principle, but the sad fact is that public grossness and the sheer
entertainment value it provides have been associated at times with increased
revenues flowing back to the sewer from which the grossness emerged.
Indeed, two weeks into the scandal not one corporate sponsor had dumped
its Tour team despite the carnage in the newspapers, a collective corporate
decision that will not be lost on other potential investors in the sports
There were, in fact, two types of corporate response to the Tour
scandal. A spokesman for Deutsche Telekom, the German communications
giant that sponsors one of the Tour's two strongest teams, offered copious
assurances that the company was planning to help finance research on
new detection methods for synthetic erythropoeitin (EPO), the red blood
cell producing hormone that is presumably the most abused and most dangerous
drug on the Tour. Neither of the German scientists scheduled to benefit
from this corporate largesse had ever heard of the plan, but that would
eventually be taken care of. To dampen any suspicions that Telekom riders
were taking human growth hormone, the spokesman pointed rather naively
to the fact that the sports physician looking after Telekom's riders
was none other than Dr. Joseph Keul, a longtime physician to the West
German Olympic team and accomplished publicity-seeker who for many years
has been notorious for being soft on doping. (20) According to Keul,
EPO is safe when used properly and offers a practical replacement for
altitude training. (21) This did not prevent Telekom from announcing
that Keul would be meeting with the Association of German Cyclists (BDR)
after the concluson of the Tour to work on new methods for detecting
EPO. "Professor Keul," the spokesman noted encouragingly, "already has
a list of suggestions." (22)
How Deutsche Telekom reconciles its employment of Keul with its announced
intention of driving EPO out of the sport is hard to figure, unless
one accepts the premise that all the fuss about EPO detection may have
been a public relations maneuver. Telekom announced even before the
end of the Tour that the doping scandal would have no effect on its
team sponsorship and that it intended to honor the existing contract
that expires in 2001. In fact, the most striking aspect of corporate
response to the Tour scandal was the almost eerie calm with which it
was greeted by the sponsors. Whether this unconcern was due to ignorance
or sheer cynicism was not always clear, as is evident in the following
declaration. "We take for granted that our team receives the best athletic
and medical care," said the chairman of the German Bank in Spain, a
co-sponsor of the Spanish Once team. "And for that reason the doping
issue does not affect us." The publicist of a brewery said that he wanted
to "look very carefully at whether doping is a general problem in cycling"
-- a riddle that anyone willing to read a newspaper had already solved.
Another businessman said that he would deal with the doping publicity
by adopting a "creative approach" that he appeared to assume was ready
to hand. (23) In short, it was easy to get the impression that the sponsors
had seen the alleged enemy, and they were anything but alarmed. It was
as if they had adopted as their motto the down-and-dirty realism of
the Tour rider Theo de Rooy: "If you think that sports in general can
be or must be the purest form of entertainment while the whole world
is rotten -- that's utopia." (24)
The sad thing about the Tour's sudden disgrace is that the ordeal
it requires is, beyond a doubt, a venue for shared heroism. For as Hans
Wilhelm Gäb pointed out, the solidarity of these drug-assisted riders
expressed "the ethos of a group that in the last analysis becomes a
conspiratorial community, not through doping, but through a shared adventure
in a type of extreme sport. Even the riders who do not dope have up
to now accepted the rules of this business. That is why they do not
criticize other riders but rather sympathize with the ones who are thrown
out." (25) While the ethical dangers of this kind of male-bonding are
well known, its profound appeal cannot be denied. "Who still believes,"
one disillusioned sportswriter asked, "in the beautiful fairy tale about
the heroic struggle against 4000 kilometers of highway?" As a matter
of fact, the appeal of the heroic myth is much stronger than this credulous
skeptic seems to think. For the surreal chaos of the 1998 Tour should
not be mistaken for a permanent condition.
There is, in fact, a case to be made for quietly ignoring the virtually
universal doping that goes on in this "extreme sport," an argument that
accepts and even embraces the medically extreme and potentially fatal
character of the ordeal itself. It is an argument that is (from its
own perspective) properly contemptuous of medical humanitarianism and
fastidious concerns about sportsmanship in the traditional (and here
outmoded) sense of the term. This argument was boldly launched into
the midst of the Tour madness by the German journalist, physician, and
cycling fan Hans Halter, who presented it with the precisely correct
doses of principled defiance and ironic pathos that this philosophy
of "sport" requires. "No one can seriously expect," Halter wrote, "that
these extreme athletes, tortured by tropical heat and freezing cold,
by rain and storm, should renounce all of the palliatives that are available
to them." (26) Indeed, no one can, for those who accept the ordeal must
concede to the martyrs at least a measure of relief. What the Tour scandal
tells us is that modern society does not even know how to begin to draw
(1) Roland Barthes, "The Tour de France as Epic" ,
in The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang,
(2) "Dunkle Schatten auf der Tour," Süddeutsche Zeitung, 25/26 July
1998. The Süddeutsche Zeitung (Munich) will be referred to hereafter
(3) See John Hoberman, Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and
the Dehumanization of Sport (New York: Free Press, 1992): 13.
(4) Tom Donohoe and Neil Johnson, Foul Play: Drug Abuse in Sports (Oxford:
Basil Blackwell, 1986): 3.
(5) Mortal Engines, 126.
(6) Hans Halter, "Alles verstehen, alles verzeihen," Der Spiegel, 3
August 1998, 97.
(7) "Ein Sprengsatz bedroht die ganze Tour," SZ, July 13, 1998; "Voet
belastet Festina," SZ, July 15 1998.
(8) "Sechs neue Festnahmen bei Festina und TVM," SZ, July 24, 1998.
(9) "Ich hatte Tränen in den Augen," SZ, 1/2 August 1998.
(10) "Riders Are Still Critical of the French Police and Courts for
Their Role in Drug Affair," New York Times, 11 October 1998.
(11) "Weiterrollen oder ausreißen," SZ, 31 July 1998.
(12) "Hier sitzen nur Schwerverbrecher," SZ, 27 July 1998.
(13) "Ausblenden und Gesundbeten," Der Spiegel, 27 July 1998, 104.
(14) "Sondersitzung des IOC," SZ, 1/2 August 1998.
(15) "Hier sitzen nur Schwerverbrecher," SZ, 27 July 1998.
(16) "Olympischer Sport gefährdet," SZ, 25/26 July 1998.
(17) "Sklaven nützen uns nichts," Der Spiegel, 3 Augst 1998, 94-95.
(19) "Riders Are Still Critical of the French Police and Courts for
Their Role in Drug Affair," New York Times, 11 October 1998.
(20) On Keul's relationship to doping, see Mortal Engines, 245, 246,
252, 256, 261.
(21) "Ausblenden und Gesundbeten," Der Spiegel, 27 July 1998, 105.
(22) "Weiter viel Freude," SZ, 31 July 1998.
(23) "Ausblenden und Gesundbeten," Der Spiegel, 27 July 1998, 106.
(24) "Riders Are Still Critical of the French Police and Courts for
Their Role in Drug Affair," New York Times, 11 October 1998.
(25) "Sklaven nützen uns nichts," Der Spiegel, 3 Augst 1998, 94-95.
(26) Hans Halter, "Alles verstehen, alles verzeihen," Der Spiegel, 3
August 1998, 97