Restoring a tarnished image: Levi leipheimer, team Astana, and the Tour De France

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If you want to see me get heated, ask me about doping and sports. Hopefully, you aren't a football fan (American rules) or a baseball fan - as my opinion of steroid use is pretty cut and dry. You see, I'm a purist when it comes to athletic performance. Any athlete who uses a drug or other substance to enhance their performance, strength, endurance, recovery, etc. is a cheater. Period.

I understand the need for bigger and bigger hits in football, I understand the need for baseball players to be able to hit the ball out of the park with one arm, time and time again, and yes, I understand the need for track athletes to break speed records in the 100, 200, 400 and 800.

More to the point, I completely understand the temptation to dope in the world of grand tour cycling - especially when I am sprinting up a steep hill, my heart beating so hard I can taste blood in the back of my throat, and I still get dropped by guys more talented and better trained than me. If only I could take a pill or drink some kind of special shake that made me just 5% faster. 5% stronger. Gave me 5% more endurance. Yeah, on the verge of puking my guts out at the top of a climb, I often wish Accelerade or GU came up with a little magic pill that would make climbing a wee bit easier.

And as competitive as I may be, I am just a recreational athlete.

Imagine if I were a pro, and my paycheck depended on my getting to the top of a mountain in first place as opposed to... fifth or sixth or seventh place.

Imagine if the difference between success and failure depended on just 5% more output from my body.

Imagine if the majority of the athletes I competed against were doping up, and the only way for me to even-up the scales were to shoot up?

What if I lived and worked in an environment, a culture, an industry that not only encouraged me to cheat, but also made it easy for me to do so? What if every single day of working in this environment, everything led me to rationalize that... well, if everyone else is cheating, it isn't cheating since all I am really doing is evening the playing field?

It would be difficult. I can sit here on my high horse and pretend that the choice not to dope is easy, but it isn't. It can't be. Not when the culture of your sport and the incredibly high stakes make doping the solution of choice when it comes to not getting churned out like a chump.

The problem with professional cycling is that blood doping has been at the core of the Grand Tour culture for quite some time, and it is nigh impossible to change that kind of behavior overnight. But some athletes, teams and directeurs sportifs are trying. They really are. The problem is that we still can't tell for sure who's cheating and who isn't, because doping science is always just a step ahead of testing science.

If you were to ask me if doping scandals have turned me off from the Tour, my answer would be yes and no. No, I will never be completely turned off by the Tour De France because it is such an awesome event to watch and be a part of. It is inspiring. It is exciting. You can't be a cyclist and not watch at least the mountain stages of the Tour... or the TT, or maybe the first week's sprint finishes. But yes, I am a bit turned off because every seemingly superhuman performance raises a little red flag in the back of my head: Is this guy really that much of a badass, or is he on a very expensive cocktail of hemoglobin and top secret meds?

That's the part that sucks: Not knowing. Doubting that the performance is genuine. As much as I enjoy watching an athlete crush his competitors the way Lance Armstrong did a few years ago, not being able to buy into his victory 100% affects the value of the experience. It also affects the relevance of the event, and of the sport in general. And that sucks.

Today, there still is no definitive way to absolutely 100% identify cyclists on the juice from those not on the juice... and until that changes, the Tour De France will be only half the race it could be.

In light of this, here is an email I received over the weekend:

On February 13th, the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) barred Team Astana from competing in any race or event organized by the ASO in 2008. The ASO owns premiere cycling events like Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Tours, and the famed Tour de France.
To justify its decision, the ASO has cited the doping scandals of last year's Tour de France.There can be no comparison between the Astana team of 2007 and the new Astana. The entire organizational structure has been rebuilt under the direction of the team's new General Manager, Johan Bruyneel, who has thoroughly cleaned house. What's more, Astana has adopted the rigorous doping controls developed by anti-doping expert Dr. Rasmus Damsgaard, and Astana now spends more money on anti-doping controls than any other team in the pro peloton.
"That the happenings of last year...prompted the Tour organizers to leave Astana out of the season's most important race sounds understandable," notes Bruyneel. "However, Astana Cycling Team 2008 has nothing to do with the team of last year. We have done everything to change the dynamics of the team. New management, new riders, new philosophy. Only the name of the sponsor remained."
The ASO has turned a blind eye to Johan's efforts. By barring the entire team from competing in ASO events, outstanding athletes like Levi Leipheimer, who was not a member of last year's Astana team and who has never been implicated in any doping affair, are forced to sit on the sidelines while their life's work passes them by.
"When I saw the Tour de France on TV when I was young," laments Leipheimer, "I knew that someday I wanted to do that race. I sacrificed my life to participate. After finishing on the podium last year I want to do even better. Now I'm a victim of an illogical decision and have been excluded from the race."

I don't claim to know the exact chemistry of Levi's blood, but I'll say this: Give the guy and his team a chance to race. Punishing a team for past misdeeds when its membership, management and anti-doping measures have all been overhauled is moronic. Sure, the team's ownership may be rightly punished (something hefty fines would do just as well), but in the end, it is the riders and the public who suffer - and unjustly at that.

Whether in the world of sport or the world of business, when an organization completely rebuilds itself in the wake of a scandal and commits to rebuilding its reputation, why punish them? Why not embrace their effort and their spirit? Why not make them the poster child for the kind of change you want to see? Test them to death, scrutinize their every move, but let them prove themselves. Give them the opportunity to fail.

What could be worse than not punishing athletes and teams when they cheat?
Punishing the wrong people.

Though I am not a huge fan of Levi's riding, I admire the way he is fighting for his right to race in this year's Tour. His fight isn't about winning - it's about wanting to race, which is at the core of cycling (and sport's) very spirit. That is sonething I can both relate to and stand behind. So Levi, you have my vote.

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