The shame of it all

By Gary Boulanger, US editor for BikeRadar | Wednesday, June 11, 2008 7.37pm

So, according to Team QuickStep, Tom Boonen's recent cocaine revelation and subsequent exclusion from the 2008 Tour de France 'won't have any consequence on a professional and sporting level'?

Sorry, did I miss something here? Snorting cocaine is illegal is most countries, and a professional athlete, whose body should be treated like a temple (or at least a finely-tuned engine), owes it to themselves, their families, fans and sponsors to steer clear of illegal substances. Lord knows they get paid a lot of money by their teams and endorsing sponsors to train and race bicycles, but with all the scrutiny facing professional sports as a whole - not just cycling - Boonen's cocaine debacle is shaping up to be a truly sordid affair, especially when comments like this are put forth in statements from Team QuickStep:

"In the last 24 hours there have been  several conversations  with the representatives of ASO (Amoury Sports Organization, the Tour's management and owner's group)," the press release stated. "The team is sorry to have not been able to meet the representatives of ASO before the decision was taken, considering that the result of the test undergone by Boonen won't have any consequence on a professional and sporting level."

Any consequence? Remember what happened to the careers of Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich after they were found out to have taken too many illicit drugs, in season or out? There's a much deeper problem here if a team doesn't understand that an athlete taking illicit drugs isn't as serious an offense as taking performance-enhancing drugs like EPO or the like.

According to a recent Agence France-Presse (AFP) report, the news of Boonen's cocaine positive, which emerged just as QuickStep announced they would be given another three years of their sponsors' money, prompted the Tour of Switzerland to withdraw Boonen from the invite list.

It was then almost inevitable that Tour officials followed suit.

Sure, his heart is strong, but what about his character?: sure, his heart is strong, but what about his character?

Boonen's vital signs are strong, but what about his character?

The Tour has a strict code of ethics, which has been reinforced in the wake of continuous doping affairs, and all participating teams recently signed the 'good conduct' charter by which teams agree to not align, or pull out, riders whose conduct risks damaging the image of the event.

QuickStep team manager Patrick Lefevere had earlier stressed the difference between "real doping problems" in cycling and the difficulties of a "private" nature of their star.

Tour director Christain Prudhomme agreed, but added: "It's not a case of performances being improved, this is something that has happened in a social sphere well outside of sport.

Boonen signing autographs at the 2007 tour.: boonen signing autographs at the 2007 tour.

Being a professional athlete carries more than just signing autographs.

"Tom Boonen is a big champion but a big champion must also be exemplary."

I have Belgian blood coursing through my veins, and have appreciated the cycling heroics of Eddy Merckx and several Belgian racers over the years. My wife and daughter have fallen under the 'Boonen Spell', and have several pictures of him on our refrigerator. My children watched live coverage of this year's Paris-Roubaix, as Boonen stormed around Fabian Cancellara for his second victory in three years. Indeed, you can say Boonen's antics will have a negative affect on the Boulanger household, and many others around the world.

Placing any sports figure on a platform is not healthy. Give them suitcases full of cash, and many times all hell breaks loose. It's one thing for a professional American football, soccer, basketball or baseball player to choose to let fame go to their heads (or through their nose or veins) when they come from poverty or straight out of high school, but when a rider with Boonen's background takes a turn like this, and has a team surrounding him that doesn't acknowledge a bigger problem, how can we - media, fans and sponsors - feel safe in the knowledge that what we're witnessing is pure athletic achievement and not synthetic, orchestrated behind the scenes because there's so much money at stake?

5-time tour winner bernard hinault with boonen at the '07 tour.: 5-time tour winner bernard hinault with boonen at the '07 tour.

5-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault: "just say no to drugs, Tommke."

Truly, there'll be plenty of finger pointing as this saga unravels. I don't know about you, dear reader, but I tire of the lies, cover-ups and lack of accountability running rampant in our sport and our industry just for the sake of more market share or profit. And I certainly don't want to see Boonen become just another statistic; his life and well-being are much more important than any bike race.

Even the Tour de France.

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