Cycling has taken one for the team over illegal doping

Disgraced: Tyler Hamilton. Photo: Getty Images
Disgraced: Tyler Hamilton. Photo: Getty Images

And so, with one week to go, it seems the 2017 Tour de France will boil down to a clash between Chris Froome and Fabio Aru, Sky versus Astana - a team with a fondness for the grey area versus a team with a long and storied relationship with dopers.

For a sport still trying to exorcise its demons, it's not the best face to present to the world, but then again few outside the closeted world of cycling are willing to listen any more when the cries emerge from the peleton that the sport has changed.

Which is perhaps only fair, because when the fingerprint of a filthy past is still so visible, you can't expect many to offer their trust, not when they've been sold the magic beans one too many times.

But cycling, in many ways, has been a fall guy in an era when doping's tentacles have spread further than we'd like to believe in sport.

We've seen beneath the sport's covers, and it can't be unseen. Athletics, too, has been getting down and dirty with it - shamed, quite rightly, for allowing a culture of cheating and corruption to thrive.

But if we've learned one thing from these sports, it's that honesty is bad for business.

They both prospered in an era when cheating was rife, but once the sordid reality was exposed attendances dwindled, sponsors headed for the hills, and clean competitors were left to carry the can for the sins of their predecessors.

Far better, then, to adopt the approach of other sports, those where anti-doping efforts are sufficient only to catch imbeciles. Because for them, doping just isn't an issue, right?

After all, back in 2010 Spanish manager Vicente Del Bosque told us football was "completely clean" and that it was "nearly impossible" that players use performance-enhancing drugs. His words, however, ignored the claims of another Spaniard, Dr Eufemiano Fuentes, who by then had gained infamy through the Operation Puerto doping scandal.

In raids on apartments belonging to Fuentes in 2006, Spanish police reportedly seized 1,000 doses of anabolic steroids and more than 200 blood bags, but to date only his cycling clients have ever been exposed, with some huge names like Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich and Tyler Hamilton (below) going down in shame.

Strange that, given Fuentes admitted to an extensive client list that involved soccer, athletics, tennis and boxing.

In 2013, hopes were high that those clients would be exposed when Fuentes went on trial in Madrid, but Judge Julia Santamaria had other ideas, telling the doctor, shortly after he offered to identify all the stored blood samples, that he only needed to name the cyclists.

In recent years the World Anti-Doping Agency gained possession of the blood bags, but a ruling handed down by Madrid court last month appears to have finally shut the door on the case, stating that the blood bags can only be used to identify those with open cases, which - surprise! - is no-one.

Several years ago, former cyclist Jesus Manzano, whose 2004 interview with a Spanish newspaper first blew the whistle on Fuentes, said he often saw "well-known" footballers at his clinic, but who they were, it seems, will now never be known.

Fuentes had indicated at times he was ready to talk, offering to sell his story to the highest bidder about how he prepared a team to play in the Champions League, but more recently he changed his tune.

"I can't tell," he said. "I have received death threats. There are certain sports you cannot go against."

And so, the sport that Operation Puerto did go against remains a laughing stock, the sole one to stand up and take its punishment on behalf of a class full of sporting dopers. It makes you wonder what's better for us to know: an ugly truth or a beautiful lie?

Because these days, like it or not, we can only watch cycling through that ugly lens of doping, playing guessing games about who is souped-up harder than a Dutch raver.

But we know enough now to ask questions of other sports, to think a little deeper about that four-hour tennis epic or an astonishing physical transformation in combat sports, to actually dwell on the question when a commentator asks of a team in its third 90-minute game of the week: "where do they get the energy from?"

Because when you cast your mind back to that time - back when farmacia del Fuentes was very much open for business - Spanish sport, on the whole, was doing quite well. Wasn't it?

Irish Independent

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