The piece below first appeared yesterday on the site of the Australian revolutionary organisation Socialist Alternative, here.
by Trevor Grant
On 13 July 1967, with temperatures under a pitiless sun soaring and the Tour De France peloton in survival mode, it became much more than that for irrepressible 29-year-old Englishman Tom Simpson. Simpson was the champion rider of Great Britain. He was tough as they come and rejoiced in his reputation as a warrior on two wheels, who gave ground to no man and no obstacle.
But on this blistering mid-summer’s day, tackling a near-vertical climb, no man was safe and certainly not Simpson, who had succumbed to dehydration. He fell from his bike in a daze, summoned a whisper to demand his minders put him back in the seat, wobbled along for another 450 metres and then fell unconscious into the dust and gravel for one final time. Simpson was dead by the time the helicopter had taken him to Avignon hospital, where a post mortem showed that his blood was laced with a cocktail of amphetamines and alcohol.
It was no surprise. Not only had the police discovered amphetamine tablets in his pockets and a stash in his team’s car but the doctors knew that most riders sought a boost from some kind of chemical assistance during the three-week tour.
Amphetamines were the drug de jour in 1960s cycling. As the years wore on, Simpson became convinced that if he was going to keep competing he had no choice but to make them a regular part of his daily consumption. And on days such as this he would add more than a drop of brandy, believing it helped his cause.
Simpson was a product of his environment, a gritty son of a Durham coal miner who saw that his way out of poverty, and away from the nightmare of following his Dad “doon pit”, was on a bike.
By the 1967 Tour, he knew his days as a money-earning rider were nearing an end. According to British cycling journalists, he rode even when he was weak and ill that year because he was desperate to make as much as he could to give him some small comforts in retirement. “He was a man under immense pressure because he badly needed a result,” wrote Brendan Gallagher in the London Daily Telegraph.
Simpson’s death prompted the introduction of drug testing on the Tour but, really, not much has changed in the world of professional cycling. Except that the drugs are now more sophisticated and the rewards, for some, are greater.
One thing that has changed is the extent of the hypocrisy exhibited by those who know about the widespread use of drugs. There are those who condone and indirectly encourage the practice, yet feign so much anger and shock when illegal drug taking by high profile riders becomes a swirling public issue.
The most recent case is the biggest of all. With it comes a mountain of hypocrisy.
Seven-time Tour De France winner Lance Armstrong has finally been nailed as a drug taker and drug pusher. It has been labelled the biggest conspiracy in sports history and he has been pilloried in the mainstream media for his betrayal and for his continued denials.
However, anyone with a discerning eye on the world of professional cycling should not be so shocked, for they would understand that the pressures brought to bear upon young men in this business are virtually unavoidable.
This becomes obvious through the words of American cyclist George Hincapie, a former team mate of Armstrong’s at the US Postal team. “Early in my professional career, it became clear to me that, given the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs by cyclists at the top of the profession, it was not possible to compete at the highest level without them,” said Hincapie recently, after revealing that he and Armstrong regularly used drugs.
Armstrong obviously felt the same way. Another team mate, Steve Swart, claimed in a 2004 book that he, Armstrong and other riders began taking drugs in 1995 – Armstrong was 23 and into his third year on the international professional scene.
Let us be clear about one thing. International professional cycling is first and foremost a business and run by some of the world’s biggest capitalists. The cyclists are merely workers acting under instructions from their profit-hungry bosses. Indeed, as the entire sports world pours scorn on Armstrong, it studiously avoids the real culprits – blood-sucking corporations that earn huge profits on the backs, legs, and hearts, of the riders, most of whom are paid a relative pittance.
The Tour de France is the flagship of a billion dollar industry, with the capacity to catch drug cheats any time it wants. All it needs is the will. It has the money to finance revolutionary testing regimes and it has a very good idea about who is using drugs. They are their workers and this business, through the Tour owners and the sponsors, is closely involved in their workers’ performance.
We know how closely involved because that bastion of capitalism, Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, told us so last year. The French rider Thomas Voeckler was described by cycling business analyst Ulrich Lacher as a “pure cash machine” for Voeckler’s team sponsor, Europcar. When he took the leader’s yellow jersey in the 2011 Tour, “That one week in yellow made their (Europcar) year,” Lacher said.
Then, through Jon Cassat, who was director of sponsorship for navigation system maker and tour sponsor Garmin, we learned how sponsors go about maximising profit from their financial outlay. Cassat revealed that early on in the sponsorship he would call the team chief executive, telling him that the Garmin team should always have “three or four guys going for it” in the daily breakaway of riders. It didn’t matter that this would affect the team’s longer term strategy. The sponsor had to have its exposure up at the front of the race before any other consideration.
It can be concluded that many sponsors, and the owner and organiser of the Tour de France, the Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), opted for passive observation rather than action on a lot of drug-taking, just as the Olympics organisers who were so fearful of losing financial support did the same for many decades.
To understand where the blame lies in all of this it is important to look at the operations and history of the ASO, which is owned by the French Media Group, EPA.
It is a family business started by Emilien Amaury, who fought against the Germans at the start of World War II but then became propaganda chief for the Nazi-collaborating Vichy regime. Forgiven at the end of the war when it was revealed he used the Vichy presses to print resistance leaflets, he became a right wing press baron.
Amaury invested with a friend and fellow media oligarch, Jacques Goddet. Together they became joint owners of the Tour in 1947 when the rights were granted to Goddet’s sports newspaper, L’Equipe. By 1965, Amaury had gained outright ownership. Since then the Amaury family has owned a majority share of the Tour.
Emilien Amaury was in so many ways the French Rupert Murdoch. When one of his newspapers had a circulation decline in the 1970s, he sacked several hundred of his staff, mostly printers. They took him on and, after a two-year dispute that included Amaury using scabs to print newspapers, won their jobs back on another newspaper.
The Amaury approach to the tour has been much the same. Firstly through Emilien’s son Phillippe, who ran the ASO empire until his death in 2006. And now through his widow, Marie-Odile, who took the reins and immediately began expanding the business through more cycling tours in Asia, Europe and the US and generating bigger TV deals.
Phillippe Amaury, a rabid supporter of Jacques Chirac, inherited his father’s contempt for the working class. And he took the family line on doping – that it is best to keep it hidden, or stay in denial, as long as ASO’s profits were skyrocketing.
ASO annual revenue is estimated at more than $200 million, most of which is attributed to the Tour while the annual sponsorship budget for 22 Tour de France teams is about $400 million.
Yet the winning rider gets a mere $550,000 in prize money, which, tradition dictates, must be split with team mates. That’s $61,000 each. Second place gets $300,000, or $33,000 per rider while third is $120,000, or $13,000 each. The rest of the prize money – about $2.5 million – is split between the other 180 or so riders, with a stage winner, who gives his sponsor million-dollar publicity, getting $10,000 in prize money and the man who comes in last $500 for three weeks slog.
It is easy to believe that these guys are all multi-millionaires, especially when Armstrong earned up to $15 million a year, mostly in endorsements. All the elite riders have lucrative sponsorship deals but the bulk of the peloton are treated as sporting serfs. Little wonder the up-and-coming riders turn to drugs.
A study of the figures makes it easy to see why the company that owns the Tour has been valued at $1 billion, and easy to see why the Tour paradoxically wants the stars to appear drug-free but is happy for them to take drugs, knowing it improves their performance and gets them valuable exposure.
If they are caught cheating, then the next best option is to try to hide or ignore the team-sponsored (and in some cases, team-supplied) use of steroids, EPO and those spooky illegal transfusions with their own blood.
Indeed, according to several notable journalists, the Tour policy under the leadership of Marie-Odile Amaury has been to go soft on the drug issue. Journalist Pierre Ballester was forced to leave L’Equipe, the ASO newspaper that heads the promotion of the Tour, because his coverage of doping was considered to be down-grading the coverage of the race. “[The tour director] wanted stories of angels with winged ankles. Ballester was delivering stories of angels with dirty faces,” wrote one cycling writer.
L’Equipe ran a story in 2005 alleging new tests proved Armstrong was a drug cheat. But without Ballester the regular stories about performance-enhancing drugs were noticeable by their absence in the newspaper. “Doping in sport is a hazard. It must be dealt with when a case breaks but not as a subject itself,” Ms Amaury told L’Equipe in an interview setting out the newspaper’s editorial line.
If it were determined to clean up the drugs mess, surely ASO had the resources to investigate the umpteen stories about Armstrong’s drug taking. But that would have meant admitting seven successive Tours were won illegally.
It might have also reviewed its relationship with the one time team sponsor, Festina. The team sponsored by the watch company was involved in a huge EPO conspiracy on the Tour in 1998 that resulted in riders and doctors being jailed. This was shown to be a major drug operation and it seems difficult to believe that someone at Festina didn’t know about it.
But the company was absolved of any blame and allowed to keep sponsoring a team until it pulled out in 2001.These days its once-blackened name is on the list of proud Tour sponsors as well as being official timekeeper.
The corporatisation of cycling has been a long and arduous process but capitalism has dug in its poisonous claws and isn’t about to let go. Along the way, it has produced many victims, including Tom Simpson and the 1998 Tour de France winner Marco Pantani, a serial drug cheat who died of a cocaine overdose in 2004. Now the reputation of the greatest cyclist of all time, Lance Armstrong, whose recovery from cancer inspired so many people around the world, is in tatters.
But there is no time to stop to mourn and get serious about changing the culture, for there are races to be run and profits to be made.