by Justin Davis
BREST, France, July 3, 2008 (AFP) – The Tour de France kicks off here Saturday for what organisers pray will be a scandal-free three weeks of racing.
But it will not go unnoticed that this year’s July 5-27 race comes 10 years after the Festina doping scandal which almost brought the Tour to its knees – and changed the world’s perception of the problem of doping in sport.
It was on July 8, 1998 that a Festina car being driven by the team’s ‘soigneur’ Willy Voet was stopped by customs officers at the French-Belgian border.
The arsenal of doping products discovered in his car boot, including the banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin), was to stun the sports world, and leave a dark shadow hanging over the world’s biggest bike race.
Eventually, the affair led to criminal charges being brought against the Festina team, its team manager Bruno Roussel and the team doctor.
Roussel, after police interrogation, admitted through his lawyer during the race that he had helped establish systematic doping programme at Festina but claiming it was done to protect his riders from wrongly administering products that were already rife in the peloton.
Only two riders from Festina, their emblematic climber Richard Virenque and Pascal Herve, denied doping when questioned by police.
But the team, one of the best in the world, was thrown out of the race – by the end of which the entire peloton, fed up with the incessant questioning of their integrity in the media, had threatened to strike.
After an aborted strike and go-slow procession after leaving the Pyreenes, the peloton staged a sit-down strike on July 29, on the 17th stage between Albertville and Aix-les-Bains.
All the Spanish teams in the race decided to pack their bags and leave, and that day’s stage was canceled. Italian Rodolfo Massi, wearing the polka dot jersey at the time, was charged by police the next day after corticoids were found in his room.
In the end the race continued, albeit without the Spanish teams, Festina and Virenque, who had petitioned hard to stay in a race that he had started in the hope of ending France’s long wait for the yellow jersey.
On the Champs Elysees, Italian climber Marco Pantani won the yellow jersey to secure a rare double after his Giro d’Italia victory a month earlier.
Pantani died six years later from a cocaine overdose.
One of the few positive outcomes of the Festina affair was that it led to the creation of the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA), and the scientists got round to creating a reliable test for EPO.
But the fallout from the ‘Festina affair’ was shocking.
Voet, who had admitted during his interrogation by police he had been working under the orders of team management, eventually chronicled the extent of the doping problem in cycling in a book.
Virenque meanwhile became the centerpiece of a criminal trial in October 2000 which gripped France, and the watching cycling world.
After initially denying he had knowingly doped, Virenque finally admitted in court that he had used EPO.
After serving a ban, Virenque eventually returned to cycling with the Quick Step team – but his career achievements will be forever stained.
Although 10 years have passed since arguably the biggest doping scandal in sport, the Tour has suffered its fair share of doping affairs.
This year, organizers are praying it will be spared another sorry episode.