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The Sinking Joke Effect

Aside from the usual stage coverage, there's a lot of doping chatter out there today, the fallout from the positive A-sample returned by Patrik Sinkewitz recently. [BTW, the headline comes from the Google translation of "Sinke" (sinking) "Witz" (joke).] Once again, there is plenty of debate about how to react, from Jens! Voigt saying German TV is overreacting, to Adidas waving the sponsorship plug-pull threat around. A couple perspectives...

One of the problems, for which there may be no solution, is how to recognize the reality. Doping is a lot like the terrorism conundrum we Americans face... not going into politics here, but consider: it's done in secret, so nobody really knows what's going on. When someone gets caught, people are therefore confused... is this a sign that the system is working, or that it isn't? Should we be more afraid if nobody is being caught, or does that mean the problem is solved?

Eradicating doping involves the same challenge as terrorism: how do you look within the soul of every last person to determine, definitively, that the threat is gone? And as we are seeing in this case, this same uncertainty allows people to score cheap points in the arena of public opinion. I won't go into the terrorism example here -- too many hard feelings involved. But in Belgium, we're told, raids were conducted by police on the homes of cyclists this spring, spurred on by political forces. In Germany, the government is monitoring the peloton while threatening to de-fund the world championships in Stuttgart this fall. Are these "concerns" justified, or just cheap plays by people trying to look tough? Cycling is a big, fat target when it comes to doping... but there's no excuse for losing sight of what's really going on.

Consider: by all accounts, we are seeing a different Tour, possibly one in which doping is playing a diminished role. Maybe even a severely diminished one. We don't know. Does it help to shut off coverage of the clean version? Will ZDF and ARD apologize for all those years of celebrating Jan Ullrich? Will they give back the dollars earned on the big ratings driven by der Jan? Should they be turning the cameras off of Linus Gerdemann -- a standard bearer for clean sport and winner of stage 7?

The answer is... it's hard to say. If you think the Sinking Joke is the tip of the iceberg, then maybe it's better not to watch; turning off the TV is hitting the sport where it hurts. But if the system just caught one of the last few bad apples, then Cycling, and this Tour in particular, deserve serious praise.

I've long railed for the kind of centralized, neutral system with real power to test, penalize, etc., as a chance to give people (riders included) some assurance that the cleanup efforts are fair and effective. Sounds nice, I know. But maybe the Adidas news is the best thing to come out of this. As David Millar points out, Sinking Joke has just put all his mates' careers in jeopardy. Maybe the UCI isn't going to sanction teams for riders' offenses, but their own sponsors are contemplating it. If this were the norm, riders might think twice about doping and risking their team's demise and putting all their friends out of work. Teammates live in very close quarters, which when it works forges strong bonds (see CSC). Pressuring teams about doping offenses would vastly increase the internal peer pressure to stay clean. On a good team at least, this might be the one force more powerful to an individual than the temptation of cheating.