A blow to the pocket
Will drug scandal scare off sponsors?
Posted: Wednesday July 22, 1998 10:07 AM
PARIS (CNN/SI) -- It is now being debated as to whether the world of cycling and its premier race, the Tour de France can survive the accusations and daily revelations surrounding the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
With additional information being released constantly the question now remains how tarnished the public will perceive cycling's image to be, and what impact this will have on its ability to attract the corporate sponsors that bankroll the sport.
"Drug scandals are staining the Tour de France," said Matthew Patten, chief executive of M and C Saatchi, a London-based company that advises corporations on sports sponsorship.
"They will definitely impact sponsorship. Behind closed doors, sponsors will be asking themselves, `Is this the sort of sport we want to be involved in?"' Patten said in a telephone interview.
The scandals began when customs officials found a stash of the illegal drug EPO in the car of the Festina team's physiotherapist days before the start of the Tour July 11.
The Festina team was thrown out of the race Saturday, but appears to merely have added fuel to the fiery controversy surrounding the race.
In an article published Tuesday by the French daily Le Parisien, the Festina team's doctor alleged that riders were ordered by the team manager to contribute to a fund used to buy illegal substances.
"The riders were obliged to put part of their win bonuses into a 'black box' fund to buy banned substances," Arsene Ryckaert, lawyer for team doctor Eric Ryckaert, to whom he is not related, was quoted by the paper as saying. "These products, like regular drugs, were held at Festina's headquarters in Lyon."
The debate heated up further Tuesday when the International Union of Cycling (UCI), the sport's governing body, asked the Dutch cycling federation to investigate reports that EPO had been found in the car of an official of the TVM team.
"This whole affair is very worrying from a commercial point of view. If people are cheating -- and it is clear that they are -- ways must be found to beat it," said Alan Rushton, managing director of Sport For TV, the company that organized the first leg of the 1998 Tour de France in Ireland.
"If a concerted effort is made, the position can be recovered," he said in a telephone interview.
The problem is that stopping the use of EPO doping seems a forlorn hope.
"EPO is completely undetectable unless we test on the same day that the rider has taken the drug. Even then, it is undetectable when taken with a growth hormone," Anne-Laure Masson, the UCI's anti-doping coordinator, told The Associated Press.
"Scientists have been working on this for years, but we still have no solution. This is a very big problem for the sport."
That won't go unnoticed among the big corporate sponsors that contribute almost all the funding to the Tour de France and other big cycling competitions.
For the privilege of festooning their logos on cyclists during the three-week spectacle, sponsors cough up about US$5 million each.
And increasingly, it is not just corporate backers that are approached to fund cycling.
The Irish government put up about half the US$6.4 million needed to stage the first leg of this year's tour there.
While the drug controversies continue, such financial backing could be in danger, according to Patten.
"There is no question that this is effecting the credibility of the sport and the people involved," he said. "Over the next 12 months tour organizers are going to have very serious problems convincing organizations that the race presents the right image for sponsors."
For now, sponsors are justifying their investments.
"We can't say too much at the moment, but we are absolutely sure that our team is clean," said Stephan Altoff, a spokesman for Deutsche Telekom in a telephone interview.
Deutsche Telekom sponsored last year's winner, Jan Ullrich, a leading rider in this year's Tour.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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