Alan Braunholtz: Not all’s fair in sports
Team sponsors are withdrawing from pro cycling teams whose members are caught cheating with drugs because it’s not reflective of the corporate values they want to promote to the world.
Team sponsorship always felt a bit weird anyway, especially when compared to equipment sponsors. Amateur athletes want to buy a similar shoe, racquet, and bike, etc. to the ones that the stars use. But team sponsors are different, especially in cycling. Their teams’ names are arcane and unheard of, over here at least.
Even if we do know them, it’s hard to see the point. Lance won most of his Tours with the U.S. Postal Service team. Now apart from putting a spring in the step of a proud postman, why? Am I going to write more letters and mail more packages?
SaunierDuval and Barloworld are pulling out of cycling sponsorship. I’m betting few fans know what they make. If you’re interested, it’s hot water heaters and Barloworld is a conglomerate of industrial brands, the most recognizable of which is Caterpillar trucks. Guess there are a few heavy equipment operators out there who appreciate the diesel power that talented riders exhibit on long breakaways.
My guess is sponsorship happens because it’s cool to be associated with good athletes. The truly gifted possess skills that mere mortals can’t imagine. Because you can’t buy these skills for yourself, sponsorship gives you the chance to at least rub shoulders with the talented. Perhaps this is why cheating is such a downer to the sponsors ” frauds pale as companions.
Cycling knows this and its leadership performs the most stringent testing of any sport. Fail these tests and your career is effectively over. The teams are beginning to see that they have to be clean to attract sponsors, too. Four teams now have a year-round program that provides a blood passport for each athlete. This historical record allows the team to see any suspicious fluctuations in blood chemistry without the need for positive tests of illegal substances. Suspicious athletes are investigated and not allowed to represent the team until the discrepancy is explained.
It’s a two-pronged approach because the teams prevent bad athletes from even starting and the official tests, which require more definitive results, punish and ban those who cheat in competitions. It’s working, too, but the sport is a victim of its own success. Each cheat caught becomes evidence of cycling’s failure when it’s really a large step forward.
It’s hypocritical of the U.S. media to lambaste cycling this way when our national sports of football and baseball are rife with drugs and everyone turns a blind eye. The testing is weak and even if you’re inept enough to get caught, a straight-faced denial invoking vitamin supplements is good enough. You may be suspended for a week, but can still get voted in as an MVP.
There are serious doubts over the ability of drug tests at the Olympics to catch cheaters. National pride trumps the Olympic ideal of fair play, and every year unknown athletes spring to fame with literally unbelievable performances. Because they’re unknown, no one knew to test them before the competition.
We haven’t been the cleanest here either. If the U.S. track and field team were a pro cycling team, the sponsor ” the United States ” would’ve dropped them a long time ago due to their use of performance drugs and the consequent embarrassment to our ideals and ethics.
Still, when corporate sponsors withdraw, I wonder if they see the link between an athlete’s attempts to win by any means available and the corporate world’s cut-throat competition and dubious ethics of success.
While pro cycling teams are now biting the bullet with stringent regulations and self-enforced tests, there’s little movement by embarrassed “sponsors” to address the continued failings of the business world that have lead the world into a global credit crisis. They’re also still desperately fighting any sense of fair play when trading with the Third World, and good luck with pushing through any system that holds business responsible for the environmental costs they’re passing on to future populations.
Addressing any of these would get a business a lot more respect than sponsoring a clean cycling team.
Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a regular column for the Vail Daily. Submit comments to email@example.com.