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We press onward through the calendar as the temperature continues to rise, the air gets stickier and the mind starts wandering toward autumn and seasons beyond. Major League Baseball's All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium was quite the affair... though I caught not a single pitch of that seeming epic. Sure, exhibition games are all well and good, and indeed this year's All-Star Game proved that they could even be exciting at times -- but A Non-Traditional Sports Fan needs more than mere exhibitionism to sustain the lust for sports... 


A lot has been happening recently in sports. Preeminent on my mind lately has been the Tour de France... and today has kept me thinking all day. The past couple of days in the race have seen so much drama that it boggles the mind. On Tuesday's rest day, the effective death knell of the four-year-old ProTour was finally, belatedly rung when all but one of the current ProTour teams announced their effective withdrawal from the series after the 2008 season. The brainchild of former UCI president Hein Verbruggen, the ProTour was intended to be a league which unified the calendar of elite races, promote cycling to attract greater sponsorship, pair the best riders in the world with the best races, and to discover the best season-long rider in the peloton. The races, however, organized by controlling interests like Amaury Sports Organization, simply don't WANT to be unified in one calendar. They don't necessarily want to accept every one of the top teams, as it limits the number of homegrown squads which can be invited as wildcards. Sponsorship has failed to come, and the league lacks any enforcement potential. When races like the Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix were withdrawn from the series at the start of this season, its demise became a matter of time and stopped being a matter of probability. Now with the top teams no longer in the fold, the UCI will have to reevaluate the viability of Verbruggen's baby...


Then, the positives started coming out. Manuel Beltran... Riccardo Ricco... the race which sought to eliminate any blight from its roads was once again coming under indictment as cyclists were increasingly being found to have used performance-enhancing drugs. Cheating is nothing new in cycling, certainly. But the recent revelations can be viewed in two ways: the apocalyptic view espoused by chowderheads like Skip Bayless that cyclists are all cheats and should be ridiculed and shunned; or the pragmatic view that recognizes that the tests picked up new strains of synthetic erythropoietin, that the cooperation between drug companies and the World Anti-Doping Agency is yielding results, and that cyclists are tested far more than any other athletes. The tests are working, the technology on the side of the detectors is catching up to and surpassing the discovery of new drug strains. Decry the fact that some still feel the need or pressure to dope, but don't berate the sport itself -- unlike a Major League Baseball or National Football League, with weak testing policies for a select few substances and slap-on-the-wrist penalties, cycling is and long has been fighting a meaningful and arduous battle against performance enhancement in its sport. Shawne Merriman would STILL be sitting were he subject to international testing; so too would an alarming number of American athletes, inured to regular cortisone shots and painkillers and the like banned under international policy.


As the Olympics near, it is important for fans to know just how many things international athletes subject to WADA testing are really banned from taking. Steroids are banned, certainly; so is testosterone, human growth hormone, and all the things American sports fans are used to seeing on tests. But so too is cocaine and cortisone, erythropoietin and ephedrine, accelerants and alcohol. The list goes for eleven pages; the penalty for first-time offenders is a stern two-year ban...


Cycling is the breeding ground for the new testing technologies, as the recent captures of Beltran, Ricco and Moises Duenas in the 2008 Tour de France prove. In a perfect world we would have little need for all these tests, but then no human is perfect. I know I certainly am not -- I am guilty myself of using several of the items listed in the WADA Banned List while operating a bicycle. I say this not to exonerate the athletes, but to illustrate that many of the things which we take for granted using in our daily lives are wholly off-limits to a cyclist or a track star or a swimmer. Just think of Justin Gatlin, who was NOT participating when the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials took place here in Eugene earlier this month. The kid took Adderol to combat his attention-deficit disorder; the amphetamines which comprise the drug landed him a first-offense ban which, on appeal, was still upheld for a calendar year. This does not excuse his later positive; but it does illustrate that the penalties are upheld irrespective of rationale.


Doping pervades the conversation with all the big international events which have taken place this summer. I'll devote a supplemental edition of A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America in the next day or two to discussing the good which has come from sports around the world; for now, enjoy your sports spectating with a healthy dose of skepticism...





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