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Archive for Saturday, July 29, 2006

Win or lose, Landis forever tainted

July 29, 2006

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— So now the thrill of victory is followed by the agony of waiting for analysis of the "B" sample.

Cheating allegations made Floyd Landis' impossible Tour de France victory possible. When an ongoing investigation into doping resulted in the disqualification of top contenders Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso before the three-week bike race began July 1, the door was open for Landis, the 30-year-old from Lancaster County, Pa.

Now cheating may deprive Landis of that achievement and turn him into cycling's version of disgraced sprinter Ben Johnson - the most high-profile doper in the history of a very dirty sport.

Perhaps the saddest thing about Thursday's news was that it wasn't as shocking as it should have been. We have been bombarded to the point of numbness with news about steroids, human growth hormone, tainted records, "A" and "B" samples. We have been lied to so many times by busted cheaters that we can't begin to trust anyone anymore.

Worse, we can't trust sports anymore.

A week ago, Landis delivered a historic performance, making up a remarkable eight minutes in a single day of racing. That day put him in position to win the Tour. That day, he submitted a urine sample that tested hot this week.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated writer Austin Murphy, posted on the magazine's Web site, Landis denied using performance-enhancing drugs during the Tour. He speculated that something - the cortisone injections he took for his aching hip, hormones prescribed for a thyroid problem - might have skewed his testosterone levels.

Anything is possible. Landis' "B" sample, drawn from the same supply as the "A" sample, could turn out to be clean. That would clear his name by turning the original test into a false positive.

Landis told SI he "can't be hopeful" of that outcome. "I'm a realist," he added.

His better chance is to appeal the test and get it thrown out for some other reason. We're talking here about minute amounts of a couple of compounds. There is a history of athletes successfully appealing such tests.

In that case, Landis would get to keep his trophy, but his achievement would remain forever tainted. He would be the guy who got off on a technicality.

That's bad for Floyd Landis. It is worse for the Tour de France and for sports in general.

For the previous seven years, the man on the podium in Paris was Lance Armstrong. His unprecedented reign as Tour champion was the source of much doubt, speculation and investigation. Armstrong always denied using performance-enhancing substances, and he never failed a drug test.

Did that mean he was clean? Or that he was ahead of the testers?

The events of the last month support both possibilities. Landis became the first Tour winner to fail a doping test.

The knee-jerk reaction is to pronounce international cycling dead as a credible sport. It has long been tainted by the cynical belief that nearly everyone involved is cheating one way or another. The jaw-dropping scandals before the start and after the finish of this year's Tour de France must be the death knell.

But which is worse, a sport that risks its very existence in an effort to purge cheaters, or a sport such as Major League Baseball that has seemed more interested in avoiding that risk than exposing its star players?

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