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Contador prevails in a questionable Tour

The Spaniard is awarded cycling's yellow jersey, but race's credibility is in tatters after doping scandals.

July 30, 2007|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

PARIS — Beleaguered to the verge of wretched, the Tour de France actually zoomed onto the Champs-Elysees Sunday and concluded per vivid tradition.

It kept sweeping by, enticing swells of cheers from those lining the boulevard five-deep. It wrought no apparent jeers.

Had you just arrived from solitary confinement, you might've presumed it just another majestic competition rather than one of sports' most doping-addled events.

One cluster of men did carry protest signage. DEHORS TIBET, these monks pleaded.

Get out of Tibet.

Then, amid Norwegian flags and Australian flags and Colombian flags that celebrated various riders, the Tour de France announced an overall champion, 24-year-old Alberto Contador of Spain, who took the podium and grinned toothily with the Arc de Triomphe in the background.

A wavelet of cheers followed with nary a public mention of how the champion feted in 2006, Floyd Landis, tested positive four days later for testosterone.

"An extraordinary joy," Contador said, as the Tour de France that made "Tour de Farce" a cliche concluded.

With its flunked doping tests of at least four cyclists -- including prerace favorite Alexander Vinokourov, late-stage leader and apparent winner-to-be Michael Rasmussen, and Cristian Moreni, whom the police hauled off -- the Tour may have invented a new paradigm for 21st-century sports-viewing.

People may deem an event a joke, yet watch anyway.

"Yeah, of course, we watch it," Sebastian Lipszyc said. "We love it. Now it's even more interesting. Is the funniest way to watch sport."

He seems to have caught a wave with that. As of Friday, more than 500,000 Internet hits had clicked for the video of the Tour de France song he co-authored at La Plage Records of Paris. It's called "EPO, Te Quiero" ("EPO, I Love You"), a satirical ode to EPO, the drug that heightens the blood's oxygen-carrying capacity to unnatural levels. The song extols EPO for making the user "numero uno."

A French government agency, unable to get the joke, refused its release as a CD, believing it espoused the use of EPO. La Plage then released it as a surreal video on various sites, with its Mexican singer surrounded by French accompaniment.

That this kind of viewpoint could amass such blithe interest doesn't surprise Charles Yesalis, a Penn State epidemiologist. After three decades studying performance-enhancing drugs and taking many major sports "with a block of salt," Yesalis said Friday he began to notice about eight to 10 years ago that his young students seemed blase about the matter.

They saw sports only as a sort of "cartoon with humans in it," he said. They were "as nonplussed about drugs in sports as I was watching the Rolling Stones, with their drug use ... All the majesty of sports, it's all" nonsense to them, he said, using a different word for "nonsense." "They're just viewing this as big entertainment now."

He said, "The Tour de France has never been clean. It never will be clean," with cheating "ingrained in the very heart of the culture of the sport."

"So the joke still continues," Lipszyc said.

"We think it's funny," he added, "because everybody knows" about the doping," but "every year it's the same."

"People like the Tour because it's very popular and part of the countryside," he explained.

So as the race that is so emotionally tethered to France made its way toward Paris, the newspaper France Soir printed a mock obituary Friday declaring the traditional event dead at 104.

The French newspaper Liberation editorialized that the race had been "emptied of all sporting interest" and was "a caravan of ridicule."

The Independent of London called it "a March of the Damned." The French Prime Minister Francois Fillon noted "a disastrous image of the Tour de France." Two German TV stations stopped airing the race, and one Swiss newspaper stopped printing its results except for those of doping tests.

A British cyclist, Bradley Wiggins, whose team exited when one of its members, Moreni, tested positive for testosterone, appeared at a news conference Friday in England and said: "The whole thing has just lost complete credibility as far as I'm concerned. No one's got any faith in who's wearing yellow [jersey] now."

Added Wiggins: "The whole thing is null and void as far as I'm concerned this year."

"EXCLU!" screamed the Thursday headline on the sports daily L'Equipe, after Denmark's Rasmussen became the first rider in the 104-year event to get both the leader's yellow jersey and banishment.

Rasmussen's own team, Rabobank, banished him dramatically on Wednesday night, after it discerned that he'd fibbed about his whereabouts preceding the tour, telling the world his remote presence in Mexico had left him unable to submit to scheduled drug tests, where a witness spotted him in Italy.

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