Let’s hope Irish cycling can reap the benefits of staging the start of the Giro d’Italia

Festina Affair during the 1998 Tour de France saw Ireland lose out after investing so much time and money to host three stages

The main peleton heads up the Wicklow Gap during the three stages of the Tour de France which were held in Ireland in 1998. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

The main peleton heads up the Wicklow Gap during the three stages of the Tour de France which were held in Ireland in 1998. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho


Hosting the start of the Giro d’Italia in Ireland recalls the time another of cycling’s three-week Tours began on this island; back in 1998, the Tour de France also held the first three stages here. It was a moment which should have been a massive boost to the sport’s popularity and profile, and indeed initially appeared to be delivering on that.

Huge crowds turned out for the race and the Tour received large amount of media coverage. However, the glitter was soon eclipsed by a looming cloud; while the race was still on these shores, news emerged that a soigneur – a masseur and general carer – with the world’s top-ranked Festina team had been stopped on the Belgium border with an array of banned substances.

Willy Voet was driving a team car when customs officials waved him to a halt. Reportedly acting on a tip off from the manager of a rival squad, the operation led to Voet being searched and bagfuls of products seized.

The haul included hundreds of doses of anabolic steroids, erythropoietin (EPO), growth hormone and other products. Voet was taken into custody and, improbably, claimed that the drugs were for his own personal use. The fact that he was a middle-aged, non-sporting team worker rendered this somewhat implausible and the Festina Affair began.

Gathering momentum as more details emerged, the scandal came to the boil and saw the Festina team quit the race and then be arrested. More products were found when other teams were searched and many squads and riders pulled out of the Tour.

The race eventually limped into Paris, but it took years for the damage to heal.

The net effect was that the money invested to bring the race here didn’t reap the benefits expected beforehand. In that light, are there any concerns that the £4.2 million (€5.1m) spent to bring the Giro here could be a gamble?

“That was 16 years ago,” said Susie McCullough, Director of Marketing and Events at the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, the main backer for the Irish start. “Like a number of sports, cycling has made a concentrated effort to clean up the sport and certainly the Giro’s image is very good.”

Other scandals
The Festina Affair was followed by a number of other scandals within the sport, including the 2006 Operacion Puerto operation in Spain and the Lance Armstrong/US Postal Service affair. However, one side effect was a number of anti-doping measures taken to tackle the issue, including the UCI’s biological passport programme.

Under this system, riders have regular blood and urine samples taken and, over time, a profile is built up to determine each individual’s natural parameters.

Subsequent screening shows if their data remains within expected norms; deviations from this can be indicative of doping and lead either to targeted testing or to direct disciplinary proceedings.

Other sports have also adopted the model. It is believed by bodies such as the World Anti Doping Agency (Wada) that the initiative has led to cycling becoming significantly cleaner than before. In this light, there are reasons to believe that a repeat of something like the Festina Affair is very unlikely.

Darach McQuaid was a key individual in ensuring that the Giro d’Italia was secured for Northern Ireland and the Republic. His Shadetree Sports company proposed the project to Giro organisers RCS Sport, the NITB and Fáilte Ireland and played a key role in winning the bid.

He said that there is a recognition of what cycling has done to try to clean up the sport in the 16 years since the Festina Affair. “In 2006 I went through the same process before we got the green light to bring back the Tour of Ireland.

“One of the key people in the decision-making process then would have been John Treacy. He saw that cycling had some issues but that the sport was catching people and was sanctioning them.

“It is not fair to punish the sport when they are doing what is right. I would say today that is even more so the case. I get to talk to a lot of people, both knowledgeable and also slightly knowledgeable, and they say ‘hats off to cycling for the job they are doing. Every time I read a new anti-doping measure, it seems to be kicked off by cycling’.

‘Grasped the nettle’
“I believe there is a widespread understanding that cycling as a sport has grasped the nettle in the last few years and is cleaning up its act in a way that probably a lot of sports will have to follow.”

Cycling’s governing body the UCI – of which McQuaid’s brother Pat was president until last September – acknowledges that it is still possible for some individuals to cheat. The new president, Brian Cookson, has said that it is impossible to say that the sport is 100 per cent clean, due to human nature and the desire of some to succeed.

This is something that Darach McQuaid echoes, but he argues it is naïve to expect that any sporting event is blemish free.

“Nothing in life is guaranteed . . . the other day I saw there was some doping story coming out of soccer, and there is match fixing. Every sport and every way of life has its gangsters, but I’d certainly think that things are much better.

“A contract has been signed to let the event come here and there is also a significant activation of resources and money. In Northern Ireland it’s not just from the tourist board, they have also got the Department of Education involved, they have got the Department of Social Development involved, they have got the Department of Road and Transport involved.

“There is a massive, massive cross-government buy into this. It is not just the bid fee. And that shows a confidence in what a sport can do for communities and for a particular country, be it Northern Ireland or the Republic.”

Ultimately time will show how successful hosting the Giro d’Italia here will be, and also to what extent the race was run off in a fair manner. What’s clear though is, 16 years on, a repeat of the debacle of the Festina Affair is highly unlikely. It may be too soon to give the sport a clean bill of health but the patient has undoubtedly improved.

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