The Festina affair still lingers

A trip down memory lane in 1998, when the car of the masseur from the Festina team uncorked a whole host of doping products.

Riders in the 1998 Tour de France take part in a sit-down protest following the drugs scandal.
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The scandal started in fairly innocuous circumstances on July 8 1998 when a masseur from the Festina team by the name of Willy Voet was stopped by custom officials in northern France. However, when Voet's car was searched, he was found to have 400 bottles and capsules of doping products on board on the eve of that year's Tour de France. The little-known Belgian was jailed and repeatedly questioned by police. Initially his team denied all knowledge, before all hell broke loose on 17 July - towards the end of the first week of the race - when the Festina team were thrown out of the Tour.

That ban came after sports director Bruno Roussel admitted the team had been doped under medical supervision and the resulting chaos undeniably took more of the limelight than Marco Pantani's race win that year - in an ironic twist, Pantani was later exposed as a drugs cheat. The Festina riders arrested complained of their mistreatment by police, with Virenque describing them as "being dealt with like common criminals". His Festina teammate Alex Zuelle later recalled: "In the beginning, the officials were friendly but then the horror show began. I was put in an isolation cell and had to strip naked. They inspected every cavity.

"The next morning, they confronted me with compromising documents they had found. They said they were used to seeing hardened criminals in the chair I was sitting on. I wanted out of that hellhole so I confessed." In fact, by July 23, all of the team of riders had admitted to taking drugs except for team leader Richard Virenque and Pascal Herve, who later confessed when the matter finally came to court at the end of 2000 and were banned from cycling, albeit temporarily.

The resulting fall-out from the affair was massive. Other teams pulled out of that year's Tour, among them ONCE, Banesto and Risco Scotti, complaining of their treatment by officials. TVM were also booted out of the race when doping products were found in bins at the team hotel. Meanwhile, one stage was delayed following a rider sit-down protest and another was cancelled altogether following further rider objections.

Britain's Chris Boardman, a clean rider, had been riding the 1998 Tour, but crashed out and was at home when the scandal hit. He recalled: "What's very sad was that I was happy not to be part of what was the pinnacle of my sport and one of the biggest annual sporting events. It felt so sordid." But 10 years on have the lessons been learned? Team Garmin boss Jonathan Vaughters, whose team have a ride-clean ethos, explained: "Things have changed. Hopefully doping is now the exception rather than the norm. Sure, the Festina Affair played a part in changing that but it's taken a long time to get from there to now and people's attitude to doping changing. Hopefully, ten years on, we're finally winning the war."

The testing procedures are as solid as they can be. For the first time, there is a test for human growth hormone while riders due to be tested are accompanied from the finish line to the anti-doping laboratory. Riders also have to make their whereabouts known three months in advance. As one rider said this week: "If they don't catch the cheats like this, they never will." @Email:sports@thenational.ae