Twenty-four hours after the announcement that Patrik Sinkewitz had tested positive for abnormal testosterone levels, the fallout for German cycling continued to send ripples in the direction of the Tour de France on Thursday.
Yesterday, the eruption of the Sinkewitz scandal was followed quickly by a statement from German TV broadcasters ZDF and ARD were suspending their coverage of the Tour. Today that suspension became a definitive withdrawal, mitigated only by the news that a German satellite broadcaster, Sat.1, has taken over the live broadcast rights. On Thursday afternoon, members of the ZDF and ARD staff were told that they'd be leaving France on Friday morning.
Amid the confusion, rumours have spread like the forest fires which often blight this part of France. Among them this morning was the suggestion that Gerolsteiner and their boss Hans-Michael Holczer were preparing to sue T-Mobile for damages incurred as a result of Sinkewitz 's positive test. One story went that Holczer was doubly aggrieved because he was offered Sinkewitz last winter but declined on what we 'll diplomatically call a hunch. Sinkewitz, it bears remembering, was made to cut his ties with Italian doctor Michele Ferrari when T-Mobile cleared the decks after Operacion Puerto last summer.
This morning in Marseille, we caught up with Holczer to quiz him about this and other issues arising from the Sinkewitz 's positive test. The Gerolsteiner chief, incidentally, took our questions at the end what looked very much like a conciliatory embrace with his T-Mobile counterpart Bob Stapleton.
We've heard speculation this morning that you might sue T-Mobile as a result of Patrik Sinkewitz's positive test and the German TV channels' subsequent suspension of their Tour coverage. What can you tell us about this?
HMH: There was a report on German wire service DPA saying that it might be possible to take legal action against any rider who tests positive because of the damage it does to the sport and its image. When I heard this, I asked my lawyer to investigate whether this was true...First of all Sinkewitz has to recover. He's in very bad health after his crash the other day. On the other hand, I asked my lawyer if we could take action against the rider if the test result is confirmed. I have no complaint about T-Mobile; I don't see how they could have done any more.
So you're still on the same wavelength as T-Mobile and their manager Bob Stapleton?
Bob just came to chat to me now...I worked on the new Code of Conduct, dated January 1st 2007, and it says that, whenever a rider tests positive, we'll investigate the possibility of taking legal action for the damage this does to our sport and our chances of finding new sponsors. The television has gone already, and that hits me in the pocket.
I understand that you were offered Patrik Sinkewitz at the end of last year, but that you didn't want to take him on. Is that true?
I don't want to comment on that...Sinkewitz is not one of the new German generation. If you go back and read the Suddeutsche Zeitung from five or six weeks ago, you'll read some interesting things about Patrik Sinkewitz.*
*In the report Holczer refers to, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung quotes former German cycling federation official Sylvia Schenk, who claims that Sinkewitz was sent home from the 2000 world championships because of suspect blood test results. Schenk claimed that the German Federation's official explanation for Sinkewitz's withdrawal - a cold - was a cover-up.
What are your thoughts on the German TV companies' decision to pull out of the Tour?
I can understand them on one hand, on the other hand they know my position. What's very clear is that the return on my sponsor's investment is not going to be nearly what it would usually be. I've seen people working for ARD who are nearly crying this morning. They don't understand either.
There are already rumours that T-Mobile may end their sponsorship. What's Gerolsteiner's position?
We have until the end of 2008. In April 2008, there were supposed to be talks about a contract renewal, but now we've decided to all sit down around a table in September. Gerolsteiner have done a lot of important market research on the period from May to August i.e. when the Tour de France and the Tour of Germany are on. That research will be the basis for their decision. But there's something happening in cycling at the moment that not many people can see; this is the sport with the best commercial platform which exists in Europe and it's like stock going down, down, down. If the German TV channel which paid ASO 20 million euros to broadcast has now gone, someone else will come in, but they'll pay four or five million. I'm absolutely certain that there are people watching this sport from the outside, just waiting for the value to drop even more so that they can come in and buy the whole lot - teams, organisers and everything. Then in the three years it'll all be worth five times what it is today. I think that could be the biggest problem our sport is currently facing, but unfortunately it's out of our hands.
What do you think about people who are turning their backs on cycling now?
They want to educate us, but other things need to happen. In my opinion, we need Operacion Puerto to be cleared up. In my opinion we need the 100 Per Cent Antidoping program that the UCI has introduced. We can't just sit and wait. We have to get inside the riders' brains and tell them " c'est fini" - it's got to stop. When that happens, we'll get back to a normal sport and don't tell me that, even when that happens, we won't get positive dope tests. That will always happen.
How damaging is all of this for cycling in Germany?
The German TV's reaction is acting like a catalyst... For my team, it's the status quo at the moment, but if we had a positive rider, I think my sponsor would tell us to come home immediately. My riders have been aware of that since the team started eight years ago.