Tour De France- a reflection by Fr. Dick Lyng OSA

The Tour de France, ends this
afternoon on the Champs-Élysées. Twenty
one years ago this afternoon, Stephen
Roche, a south-Dublin native, became the
first and only Irishman to win the Tour. He
was joined on the podium by northside
Dubliner, Charles J. Haughey!
Roche was a hugely prestigious
figure on the cycling circuit. As a tribute to
him, the organisers decided that the Tour
for the following year (1988) would start in
Ireland. So in July 1998, as an irresistible French football team
closed on World Cup victory, and as the peloton was gathering in
Dublin for the Tour’s start, a doping scandal that would taint the
Tour forever was emerging. What began as a whisper soon became
a scream as the controversy exploded into the Festina Affair.
The scandal began when Willy Voet, the personal assistant
to French cycling’s top star and leader of the Festina team, Richard
Virenque, was pulled over on the Franco-Belgian border. There
were enough performance-enhancing drugs in Voet’s car to fuel an
army of Ibizan ravers, all summer long! Virenque and his teammates
denied all knowledge of doping, as did the Tour’s own director.
The Festina team in fact ran a meticulously orchestrated
doping programme, financed by the riders themselves. Within a
week of the Dublin start, after police raids, arrests, and searches of
vehicles and hotel rooms, the Festina team had been kicked off the
race and the 1998 Tour was falling apart.
Many scandals have followed. The most successful cyclist
of all time, Lance Armstrong, was stripped of his seven Tour de
France titles for doping. Even this year, pre-race favourite Chris
Froome, the four-times Tour de France winner, has been
accompanied by a dark cloud of well-founded suspicion.
But doping is nothing new to the Tour. As long ago as
1957, French philosopher Roland Barthes published a short essay,
“The Tour de France as Epic.” He saw the Tour as a symbolic trial
which created a caste of heroes and villains. Indeed, the sheer
intensity of the riders’ suffering elevates them to the pantheon of
martyrs. Here they are in touch with supernatural forces. This
‘divine rub’ makes exceptional performances possible. Barthes
dubbed this ‘divine’ burst of energy “The Jump”: “This is a veritable
electric influx which erratically possesses certain racers beloved of
the gods which causes them to accomplish superhuman feats.” But
even then he recognised that “the jump” also had a hideous parody:
“To dope the racer is as criminal, as sacrilegious as trying to imitate
God. It is stealing from God the privilege of the spark.” And God,
he warns, will have His revenge on the dopers.
But this divine revenge, in the shape of poisoned bodies,
has been ineffective. Where the prize is enormous, participants will
take great risks. And, thanks to sponsorship, the prizes today are
enormous. If the risk includes drugs, so be it, writes physician Hans
Halter: “No one can expect that these extreme athletes, tortured by
tropical heat and freezing cold, by rain and storm, should renounce
all of the palliatives that are available to them.”
But, when healthy skepticism gives way to a creeping
cynicism, the first casualty is trust. Trust is the glue that binds the
producer to the consumer, spectator to participant. If the masses no
longer believe what they are seeing, then they – and the sponsors –
will walk. For the sake of true sportsmanship, this must happen.
This pharmacy on wheels has run its course. -Dick Lyng