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Tour rides on, but under doping cloud

American Floyd Landis, in yellow jersey, rides with the pack in the final stage of the 2006 Tour de France.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: The world's most famous bike race starts this weekend. The Tour de France will begin in, of all places, London, on Saturday. But even moving the start to a different country won't help organizers get past new charges of illegal doping by some of the big-name riders. And what that might mean for fans and broadcasters. Diana Nyad's with us to talk about that.

Hey, Diana.

DIANA NYAD: Kai, how are you?

RYSSDAL: I'm all right. So, listen. Riddle me this. Are you ready?

NYAD: Ready!

RYSSDAL: If they held a major bicycle race and nobody watched, would it still be a bike race?

NYAD: You know, with all of the daily — we could say daily . . .

RYSSDAL: We could.

NYAD: You know, I mean, I follow the sport and daily I'm reading about another bust. Even former Tour de France champions are coming out now, saying, "Yep, I did it. I'm dirty." Which was Bjarne Riss, by the way, from the '96 tour. But still, after all that, the race is 104 years old. There is history. It's not gonna die.

RYSSDAL: It's not gonna die, maybe. But in terms of people actually watching it. It used to be the Outdoor Life Network, now it's called Versus . . . Are they losing sponsors? Are people not paying to put their ads on it? Are people watching?

NYAD: Let's talk about viewers first. OK, in the middle of the Lance Armstrong seven-year reign . . . His story was building. The cancer survival and everything. . . . 2002, about 500,000 people were watching the Tour de France in this country. The next year, about 1,200,000 people. By the next year, which was 2004, 1,500,000. And by the final year — when he retired and won his final — that was 1,800,000 people.

OK, last year he's gone. . . .

RYSSDAL: He's gone. Floyd Landis . . .

NYAD: Floyd Landis, surprise American winner . . . it goes down by more than 52 percent to about 900,000. But, still, if you look over the growth, that's still twice as many as watched in 2002. So, not bad numbers. This year, they're expecting a decline. And sponsors — you asked about sponsors . . .

RYSSDAL: Yeah, yeah.

NYAD: The president of Versus says, technically, they haven't lost any sponsors. But everyone has come in to negotiate because of the doping, for less money.

RYSSDAL: What about the teams and the companies behind them? Are the companies still willing to pony up, even though there's so much cheating?

NYAD: Well, there's a yes and no to that. The Discovery Channel, which was, of course, Lance Armstrong's, you know, big sponsor all those years . . . They put in about $12 million a year. And they will say, just because of Lance, it's been a fantastic investment. On the other hand, this is their last year. There's a team called T-Mobile, which is one of the biggest teams going . . . Now, they're still in it, even though Jan Ullrich, their big German rider has been not yet proven, but been associated with doping. And he's out. He's retired, actually. They, like a lot of other sponsors, are now demanding their own drug testing. They will not allow their riders to see outside doctors. They require much more frequent testing than they used to.

And then there are teams like the Computer Sciences Corporation . . . you know, one of their former riders was the Tour de France champion, who was Bjarne Riis in 1996. And, now that he's come out and said that he was a cheater, that corporation is sticking by him and saying, "This is what we need. We need honesty and transparency. And we're still proud of our team. And we still think the money's worth it. And we're still hanging in there.

RYSSDAL: So here's the metaphysical point. OK? And I put this to you as an observer of sport and as an athlete, right?

NYAD: OK.

RYSSDAL: If everybody's cheating, is anybody really cheating?

NYAD: You know, it is a good metaphysical question. You know, I think you and I even spoke as short as three or four years ago. And I was kind of coming to this new attitude of "It's too late. We can't stop it. Track and field, football, baseball, cycling . . . it's the new era." And now, I don't know. I'm backing off that a little bit. The testing has gotten so much more sophisticated. We're obviously busting lots of people. And now I'm coming back to saying, "Maybe, in fact, we really can set a standard."

RYSSDAL: All right. The business of sports with Diana Nyad. Thanks, Diana.

NYAD: Thank you, Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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