Few things terrify those in charge of a major sporting organization than having an iconic figure torn down as a cheater. From time to time it happens, the popularity of that sport takes a hit and anyone from that particular era who was great immediately falls under suspicion.
In the US, perhaps the most spectacular recent case has involved baseball and steroids. We've watch Barry Bonds' head expand, we've seen a defiant group testify in front of congress, we've watch the life of Roger Clemens take some very dark turns, Mark McGuire become a recluse and Jose Conseco actually find a way to profit out of all of it. But baseball survived the steroids era because of its massive popularity prior to the allegations, the labor stoppage and several other factors that have threatened the game over the last couple of decades.
But cycling, especially in the US, doesn't have the kind of popularity to take a major hit and bounce right back. Despite massive increases in the number of registered members of US Cycling since Lance Armstrong started his fairly amazing run, that number remains well under 100,000, even with a post-2002 increase of ~50%. These numbers certainly pale in comparison to the popularity of professional cycling in Europe, but there has also been an upward trend in the sport's profile in Europe that corresponds to the emergence of Lance Armstrong on the Tour de France. Love him or hate him, it made for good theater.
But now we have yet another US cycler adding fuel to the fire that has been simmering for some time. As one prominent cycler after another has been sanctioned for testing positive for PEDs, everyone has turned to Armstrong and listened harder for the whispers that have grown louder. So far it's been a dead end, but littered with some incriminating details. The one accusation that I find the most interesting has resurfaced in Tyler Hamilton's latest claims: that Armstrong tested positive in 2001, but worked out a deal with the International Cycling Union to make it go away. In ESPN's summary of the "60 Minutes" interview, it states:
Hamilton corroborated that story on "60 Minutes," saying a "relaxed" Armstrong told him the UCI had made the issue "go away." It is not clear whether the initial test, dubbed "suspicious" in Sunday's report, was ever backed up by a test on another sample. However, as World Anti-Doping Agency director general David Howman pointed out on camera, a clear ethical breach occurred when the director of the Swiss lab that conducted the test met with Armstrong and his team manager Johan Bruyneel at the behest of the UCI. That would constitute preferential treatment. Around the time of this alleged meeting, Armstrong donated $25,000 to the UCI (he contributed another $100,000 to the governing body three years later).
The show reported that the lab director said in an affidavit the meeting included a discussion of testing procedures that would have been useful for someone seeking to beat the test. If all the moving pieces in this story are connected, it will give credence to the theory that Armstrong and his organization were protected by the UCI in exchange for a quid pro quo. Bribing foreign officials is against U.S. law.
So now the plot thickens at the suggestion that the ICU gave special protection to Armstrong and rather than having an interest in player health and cleaning up the sport, the governing body cares more about drawing fans. Sound familiar? *cough* baseball *cough*.
Just ask the NHL, which is just now starting to recover from being banned to the Outhouse Network, or whatever, how hard it us to claw back after pissing off your fan base. Baseball did okay, but remains under the specter of the Steroid era. If it turns out that many, if not all, of the top cyclists use PEDs, including some of the sports icons, can cycling bounce back? Will parents encourage their kids to play a sport where it is perceived that you can not reach the pinnacle without "assistance"?
We may very well get to find out.