Think Muscle - Bodybuilding and Fitness

A Pharmacy on Wheels - The Tour De France Doping Scandal

by John Hoberman
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. (5)

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." (17)

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 carnival.

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 the line.


(1) Roland Barthes, "The Tour de France as Epic" [1957], in The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979): 83.

(2) "Dunkle Schatten auf der Tour," Süddeutsche Zeitung, 25/26 July 1998. The Süddeutsche Zeitung (Munich) will be referred to hereafter as SZ.

(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.

(18) Ibid.

(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.