Cycling Toward Armageddon

by: Peter Bodo | January 10, 2006

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TENNIS.com

OK. Years ago, I decided I wasn’t going to engage in the increasingly popular game of “Spot the Doper.” You know how it works: You check out the way someone looks, or plays, and then declare him—or her—a doper.

In fact, that’s the most depressing thing about the doping issue in any sport; once doping is established—or even universally perceived—as a “problem,” the stigma is firmly applied, and no amount of Ajax, gasoline, detergent, WD-40, Goo-be-Gone, or Octagon is going to get rid of it.

As has often been observed, it’s not just important to avoid wrongdoing, it’s vital to avoid the perception of wrongdoing. And in that regard, I think tennis is starting to lose the war of perception as well as reality. Within a year, it has gained on cycling (the king of all sports tainted by doping associations) as rapidly as if it were, well, riding Lance Armstrong’s bike.

The latest volley from the Clean Team came booming over the Internet this morning, regarding the case of 16-year-old aspiring sensation, Sesil Karatantcheva. This is not a new story (we reported it weeks ago, as did the rest of the world). But it’s yet another persuasive bit of evidence that things are not what they seem in TennisWorld. The ITF release makes it official: We have in our midst a 16-year-old who has just been suspended for two years for using performance-enhancing substances.

Those of you who have followed my series of posts on "The Doping Argies" (enter the term in the Search box to track the posts) will understand why I am particularly sensitive to this issue. I was very tough on the Argie dopers, and my posts provoked a lot of anger and bitterness, particularly from those who would argue that the drug testers, and I, were singling out or scapegoating the Argentineans.

Through the criticism, I maintained a hard line. But I promise you that my sense of right and wrong, and of fairness, was churning away and asking me all kinds of questions every step of the way. Which is partly why I feel obliged to restate my position. My gut feeling is that the Argies, while not exactly scapegoats, are merely the dumb losers who got busted while a lot of other dopers are going free. The tip of the iceberg is still part of the iceberg, right?

I’m not just sitting here, a blogger in pajamas, to borrow the famous phrase, freely speculating, either. For there is a buzz running like an electric current through the game, and it’s about doping. It’s about the way—and the reasons why—players increasingly are taking long periods away from the game, or pulling out of events claming everything from injury to fatigue. We've had players accusing each other, players' parents accusing other players, tennis officials accusing players—and a rash of positive tests.

Any questions?

At the end of last year, when the WTA and ATP championships were plagued by no-shows and pullouts, everyone blamed the usual source—the calendar. But how do you explain the continuation of this trend at the Australian Open? Well, Reuters found a way to blame the lack of an off season and the Australian Open dates and organizers. That’s hooey.

I’ve made the case in detail before, so I’m just going with the short version here: The players are not forced to play insane schedules. Fulfilling their basic commitments leaves them plenty of room to rest, recuperate, and travel. The insanity kicks in when they are unable to resist huge appearance fees or offers to play exhibitions—or when other factors come into play. I’ve now officially joined the crowd that suspects there’s more going on here than scheduling troubles, and it ain’t good.

The most recent blow to the Australian Open was the withdrawal of Rafael Nadal. How about this, as the money quote from the ATP’s official news release:

Nadal has been undergoing several biomechanical studies in Barcelona. He has been working with a new shoe insole to release pressure on the area, which he suffered a left-foot fracture on over a year ago, and the inflammation provoked in the surrounding joints.

"We can fortunately say that we don't have an injured player but a player in a re-adaptation process. I have seen his foot today and it looks well," says Dr. Ruiz-Cotorro, who is in charge of the treatment." He had an injury on his foot that has heeled {sic} although the recovery process is very slow.

Great. Nadal’s foot is OK now, his doctor says, so he’s pulling out of the Australian Open!

I can understand Andre Agassi’s withdrawal and Marat Safin’s continuing hiatus a little more easily than Nadal’s decision. Safin had knee surgery and hasn't played at all in half a year. Agassi is 35, with a lot more going on in his life than when he was 19 or 20. For a player of his stature, a Grand Slam is, financially speaking, a loss leader. The million bucks he can make for winning the whole shooting match requires an investment of at least a month—and keep in mind that if he were “merely” the runner-up, earning just a little more than half what the champ gets, he takes a big financial hit.

But this isn’t really about money. This is about the integrity of the game, at various levels, and in various areas. Oh sure, the ongoing disarray—it borders on chaos, if you think about it; no result is without an asterisk anymore—could all be one big, unfortunate coincidence—just a patch of bad luck for the Australian Open and tennis fans worldwide.

My fear is that it’s something much, much worse than that.

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