MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Confusion and embarrassment today for cycling's most prestigious event. The Tour de France begins tomorrow and nine riders, including favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, will not be participating. They were tossed from the race because their names surfaced during a probe of alleged blood doping in Spain.
Joining now, as he does most Fridays, is Wall Street Journal sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. Stefan, what does this mean for the cycling world?
Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (Wall Street Journal): What it means is that this race is total confusion. Basso of Italy, Ullrich of Germany, Francisco Mancebo of Spain, they're all out because of this doping scandal in Spain. Fifth rider, Alexander Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, wasn't implicated directly, but five of his teammates were, so his whole team was pulled out of the race.
And more important, what it means for the sport overall is that it throws a cloud over the Tour de France, just like in 1998, when another doping scandal broke on the eve of the race.
NORRIS: Now it should be pointed out that there have been no positive drug tests or any other proof that the banned riders cheated, so why have they been kicked out?
Mr. FATSIS: Because their names are on this list of 50-plus riders that Spanish authorities say had contact with a doctor allegedly involved in blood doping. This scandal broke in May. Names have been leaked to the Spanish media over time. They're all over the web. And yesterday, authorities apparently sent the list and other information to Tour de France officials, and the race itself didn't ban the riders, it's important to note, but their teams did.
NORRIS: And how so?
Mr. FATSIS: Well, cyclists ride for teams that are paid for, supported by corporate sponsors, and last year these teams got together, they signed a code of conduct. They agreed not to enter riders into races who were under investigation, and this part is critical, “if information from the official source involved shows that facts in question can not seriously be contested” and that seems to indicate that the teams believe the information from Spain is compelling, but it also, given the sort of confusion about what this code and how it applies, it means they really had no choice.
NORRIS: And some of the favorites, who are now out of the Tour, are denying that they did anything wrong.
FATSIS: Yes. Jan Ullrich said he didn't and this is going to cause a lot of turmoil in Germany, where he is beloved, particularly as the World Cup is going on there. One of Ivan Basso's teammates, the American Bobby Julich, told ESPN today that he had asked Basso point blank yesterday whether he was involved in any of this, and he said no.
Julich also complained that cyclists could be suspended just because they were linked to an investigation, and this of course is a good point. There's not a lot of due process here. You know, there are no formal charges, there are no positive tests, but given the sport's ugly history, you can understand why teams created this ethical code last year. Cheating, the perception of cheating, is so pervasive in cycling that rightly or wrongly, there is a presumption of guilt.
NORRIS: Now, we probably don't have to remind our listeners that Lance Armstrong has been accused of using banned drugs and on the eve of this race, he's now in the news again.
FATSIS: Yup, there was testimony in a legal case involving Armstrong, depositions from a former rider and his wife, that Armstrong, in 1996, when he was being treated for cancer, admitted using banned drugs while cycling. And Armstrong this week denied that, just as he denied allegations in France made after his Tour victory last year that he had cheated.
Now he was planning to go to the Tour this summer and put in an appearance with the Discovery Channel team that he still represents, and if he does, these latest allegations against him and the ones against these other riders are going to make his appearance pretty interesting.
NORRIS: So now what happens?
FATSIS: Well, the three-week-long race begins tomorrow, 2,270 miles. It starts in Strasbourg, France. It's going to go through the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and then around France. These booted riders can't be replaced, so there'll be about 180 riders in the race and 20 teams starting.
The top finisher from last year's race is now Levi Leipheimer, an American, and there are a couple other Americans who had hoped to get out from under Armstrong's shadow and they also have a shot. Floyd Landis and George Hincapie, who had been with Armstrong during all of his victories.
NORRIS: The race has always been huge in Europe. Of course it takes place there, but I'm wondering what this doping scandal, this latest doping scandal, means and how it might affect interest here in the U.S.
FATSIS: Well, because of Armstrong, obviously, the Tour had become a huge deal for Americans and surprise hit for the OLN network. The question now is whether fans would tune in without him. I wouldn't be surprised if the scandal and the news that it's generating will get people to watch, Lance or no Lance.
NORRIS: Thank you, Stefan. Have a great weekend.
FATSIS: Thanks, Michele.
NORRIS: That's Wall Street Journal reporter Stefan Fatsis.