Twenty years ago this weekend, customs officers at the border of France and Belgium popped the trunk on an official team car headed for the Tour de France and found hundreds of doses of steroids and synthetic erythropoietin, which stimulates red blood cell production. Their discovery lifted the lid on organized doping in the professional peloton and triggered the foundation of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) the following year.
Monday, five days before the Tour rolls out on the Atlantic coast of France, quadruple winner Chris Froome prevailed in a 10-month legal wrangle over whether he had dosed himself with more than the permitted amount of asthma medication.
Cycling's governing body, the UCI, acquitted Froome in consultation with WADA, which admitted it bypassed its own rules on granting exceptions to the threshold and instead relied on a pile of confidential evidence presented by the rider's defense team. The ruling came a day before Tour organizers were set to formally argue that Froome should be excluded from their race in the absence of a decision, citing "damage to the image or reputation of the event."
The fact that an inhaler was at the center of this furor, rather than the risky, often-ghoulish techniques and substances that dominated cycling's scandal sheet for 15 years after the 1998 Festina affair, might look like progress.
But to pilfer a phrase popularized by Froome's Team Sky, that progress is a marginal gain at best. This isn't about the meds. It's about an ever-more-bloated anti-doping bureaucracy and set of sanctions that have become less credible over time.
This case is the latest in a string of events that should make the entire anti-doping establishment take a deep breath and commit to streamlining, putting science first and getting serious about transparency.
The chances of that happening are almost nil, and that is a shame for the athletes who are bound by the rules, most of whom don't have Froome-level resources to find loopholes in those rules.
Back in the days when the worst excesses of the peloton were first exposed, the French phrase cyclisme à deux vitesses -- cycling at two speeds -- became shorthand for describing a sport divided between those who were using performance-enhancing drugs and those who weren't, heavily skewed toward the former.
Count me among those who think the ratios of regular- and premium-fueled riders have changed and that doping tends to be somewhat less extreme or less prevalent, or both, these days (although I wouldn't want to be held to precise estimates). And, to repeat an oft-stated opinion, the sport has tackled the problem more avidly than most.
Yet however performance enhancement might have changed and evolved, there's an equally pressing issue now: justice à deux vitesses. The top percentile of athletes who have the most at stake are, generally speaking, athletes who can afford to assemble a blue-chip legal team and credible defense strategy.
When news of Froome's positive test at last fall's Vuelta a Espana leaked, he and his team circled the wagons. He continued to race despite concerns that results could be upended by an unfavorable verdict. We can draw our own conclusions about how confident Froome and Sky were that they'd win. Or about how much Sky needed Froome to project that confidence because of the smoke around the team's practices and personnel over the years.
Monday's ruling was head-spinning even for an industry that specializes in confusing sports consumers. Salbutamol, the substance in question, is a "specified" substance under the WADA code, permitted up to a certain limit deemed normal (i.e., indicative of legitimate therapeutic use) in a urine sample. The procedural path for an athlete who exceeds that limit is to undergo a "controlled pharmacokinetic test" to prove his or her metabolism processed it differently.
Froome got an exception to that, WADA stated, because his specific circumstances -- illness, dehydration and stress -- in the third, sweltering week of an ultimately victorious Vuelta campaign couldn't be replicated in a test. Many athletes could claim the same.
Numerous outlets have reported that Froome's defense team included a salbutamol study using dogs as subjects as part of a 1,500-page scientific package. Ethical concerns around conducting PED research on humans are frequently cited as a rationale for why there is so little hard research on the subject, so we'll conscript Bowser and Rover instead? Fire hydrants everywhere could become sample collection stations. You can't make this stuff up.
The word "excretion" came up again in Froome's case. If it sounds familiar, that's because it was central to the 2016 meldonium debacle in which WADA had to walk back its standards twice because it put the substance on its prohibited list without bothering to study the variations in how people metabolize the medication. So much time, effort and money were invested after the fact when there is little to no proof meldonium aids performance.
Yet every time anti-doping officials are challenged on that front, they repeat the lofty premise that "intent to dope" and "violating the spirit of sport" are what count. I would submit that much of what passes for doping jurisprudence these days has nothing to do with the spirit of sport. Run that theory by the other athletes sanctioned for illegal levels of salbutamol in the past 10 years.
The system can be manipulated by a single rich athlete or an entire superpower like Russia. International federations are allowed to shield their testing statistics from view, while athletes have to answer the doorbell at dawn when the tester rings.
At some point, the anti-doping establishment is going to have to narrow its banned list to a smaller one, limited to substances that truly hurt athletes and irrevocably harm competition, back it with real science, and make rules that don't bend for the 1 percent. Otherwise, the whole system is going to collapse into irrelevance and disarray. And yes, there has to be a system.
Froome is now free to line up in picturesque Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile on France's Atlantic coast Saturday to start chasing a fifth Tour title, which would tie a mark that was a record, and then wasn't a record, and then became a record again after Lance Armstrong's seven wins were annulled.
In a vacuum, it's hard for me to give a rat's rear end about how many puffs of an asthma inhaler Froome took. I've seen serious PED abuse lead to addiction and depression, ruin lives, eviscerate the humanity we all supposedly value in sport. But the way his case was treated further erodes the 20 years of "progress" since WADA was founded, ostensibly to harmonize international rules governing anti-doping. All it will do is sow discord.