Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Doping Woes

I was all set to pay homage to Floyd Landis, Tour de France winner. Bad hip and all, Landis did what seemed to be the improbable if not the impossible, losing eight minutes one day and getting almost all if it back the next. Then winning back the yellow jersey in the time trial and become the third American to win the Tour de France.

And now this: Landis is accused of doping to win stage 17.

His testosterone level in his “A” sample was too high according to the reports.

I say accused because testing always includes an “A” and a “B” sample for comparison purposes. Landis and his team, Phonak, say they’re completely surprised by the allegations and say they’re false. They’re waiting for the “B” test to prove his innocence, according to a statement on Phonak’s website.

An elevated testosterone level would indicate that he took something for recovery that would allow him to be stronger for the next stage. The timing would be right for extra testosterone for Landis, right after his “blow-up” and near miraculous recovery.

So there is one of four things going on.

  1. The test is wrong, just a mistake and he’ll be exonerated.
  2. He has an abnormally high level of testosterone (too high is a 4:1 ratio while normal males are at 1:1).
  3. The French press is on another witch-hunt.
  4. He cheated.

I’d have a tough time believing Landis cheated, but I also am the guy who thought Tyler Hamilton would be the last guy to try blood doping in order to win. But that’s just a little naive thought I suppose.

With the money involved, cheating is always part of the equation.

Of course, Lance Armstrong has been accused of doping and cheating and just about everything else ever since he returned from chemotherapy. And he’s the most tested athlete on the planet, with never a single positive result. If Armstrong cheated, it’s the best cover-up ever, and the biggest fraud perpetrated on sport in history.

But I don’t believe that and I don’t believe Landis is guilty either. He’s been around too long, he’s too smart and there’s too much at stake for him to take that chance. He knew from the beginning of the tour that he had a chance to win, with Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso in or out. He had great success in stage races at the beginning of the year and felt strong going into the Tour.

The thing that bothers me the most is the black-eye that cycling gets, again. The sport is great, it’s fun, it has a team aspect, uniforms, personalities and real competition. It’s been rife with drug use in the past but supposedly after 1998, that was cleaned up.

It’s fun to ride your bike and to see how you can ride and how your endurance stacks up on long ride. There’s nothing like seeing the countryside by bike, much different than a car and more expansive than walking. The sport is big in Europe, and in Belgium they’re crazy about it. But it doesn’t need a pro level of the sport to make riding your bike popular.

I like wearing the uniforms and kicking around on my bike, but if this proves to be true, they’re pushing the limits of me paying attention in the future. And I’m not alone. German public television is thinking about dropping their coverage if these allegations are proven and I can’t imagine OLN continuing to support cycling if everybody thinks it’s full of dopers.

Who’s going to buy advertising on that programming?

Part of the problem is the complicity over the years of dope testers, race organizers and competitors. The public needs to trust that everything’s on the up and up, or that it’s all dirty.

For that, we’re all waiting.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

World Cup Aftermath

It’s not going to change anybody’s mind about soccer. If you hated it going in, you still hate it. If you tolerated it, maybe you saw the pros and cons of it, and came away feeling about the same. And if you’re a fan, you thought it was part what’s good about the game and part what’s wrong about the game.

Italy won on penalty kicks, taking their fourth World Cup and playing to their strengths. I thought the referee did a pretty good job after the first five minutes, letting the play on the field get physical enough but not out of hand. If there’s one thing people who don’t like the game can point to it’s the acting that goes on after every play with contact. They don’t necessarily flop as much in England or in Germany, but most of the rest of Europe and all of South America have the flop as part of the culture of the game.

And Americans hate that.

Until the game is allowed to be “played” on the pitch instead of “acted” out there, it’ll always be a passing fancy among fans. Too subjective.

Every time Marcelo Balboa said “he really sold that one” it made me cringe, thinking “is selling the contact to the ref really a part of the competition?” Sure, players flop in the NBA, but with three officials on the court, a guy who’s acting soon gets a reputation and play goes on.

The ref in the World Cup final got the game under control and let just enough physical play dictate the flow of the game. The penalty in the box called against Italy was totally a phantom call, “sold” by the French and converted by Zinedine Zidane. The Italian goal on the corner kick was textbook and allowed the Italians to go back into their defensive posture, exactly what they did to get to the final.

France played the more aggressive game in the second half, and was nearly rewarded by a beautiful header by Zidane, but a spectacular save by the Italian goalkeeper kept the score tied. That’s when things started to go sideways for both teams, especially the French.

It was apparent that, barring something-strange happening, the outcome was going to penalty kicks. Totti was out of the game for Italy, replaced for a sub, even though he is one of their best free kickers. Theirry Henry came out of the game after regulation, one of the free kickers the French could have used. Then Zidane head butted Marco Materazzi for something he said about his sister and was red carded out of the game, denying the French of another of their best free-kickers.

Nobody wants to see a game determined by penalty kicks, but that’s all they’ve got right now, and the Italians finally won one, having gone 0-3 in World Cup play in games decided by pk’s.

When Zidane head butted Materazzi, I was amazed and still think it might be the strangest thing I’ve ever seen in big time sports. This is truly the world’s biggest stage. 1.5 Billion people were watching or about one of every six people on the planet. And many of those don’t know anything about the game or about Zidane’s career, which means that their only memory of Zidane will be as “the head butt guy.”

But that’s OK as well.

I’ve heard more “cooler talk” about the World Cup this week than at any other time thanks to Zidane’s actions. He apologized to the kids who might have been watching, but said “I would have rather taking a fist to the jaw than heard what was said about my family.” I don’t know, trash talk is a part of all sports these days, and Zidane should have had some retorts of his own. Or just let it go away.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tuscany – The Journey Home

It’s always good to come home after being out of the country. And at least this time I did get a “Welcome Back” from the Immigration (now Homeland Security) agent while clearing customs through Atlanta.

After the seven days in Tuscany, I headed to what’s called the “Amalfi Coast” south of Naples on the southwestern coast of Italy. Taking the Eurostar from Rome to Salerno (and don’t we wish we had that kind of train service in the States) it was just over two hours but you really thought you were in a different country when the doors opened in Salerno.

Southern Italy has a rhythm all of its own, with crowded, bustling streets and a heat and humidity index that’s akin to the southeastern US. If Tuscany is bucolic, the Campania region is just plain busy. Perhaps it was the season, but there were people everywhere.

The driving in Italy is something you have to get used to and along the coast it’s somewhere between a theme park ride and an adventure all rolled into one. Buses, trucks (big ones) cars and motor scooters all complete for a space on the asphalt, no matter how wide or skinny, no matter how curvy or blind it might be. Add to that the 500 or so foot drop at just about every turn, and you get the picture. Just plain scary.

You do get used, or immune to it, and it seems everybody understands the rules, if there are any. There’s no problem with road rage because everybody is cutting everybody off constantly with no seeming regard for safety or property. Add to the mix a bunch of aimless walkers all over the roads and it probably looks most like a video game.

But the coast is breathtaking.

Mythology says that the sirens at Sorrento seduced Ulysses, and you can see why the stories come from there. From a boat, the walls to the Mediterranean are sheer and imposing. The water is a true azure blue, and clear until the light runs out. My first thought was “why did these people move here?” But of course, people have been going to the Amalfi Coast for thousands of years.

The Romans made it part of their Empire and used it for a getaway (obviously arriving by boat).

Salerno is a working city, with a big port that takes in business from all over the world. Working north, Amalfi is over run by tourists and reminded me of beaches in the Northeast US. I half expected carnival barkers. But it is the gateway to Revello, a natural plateau rising over 1000 feet over the sea. Gorgeous, cool and quiet, some people think it’s the best place in Italy, and I can see why.

There are numerous small towns along the drive, some more discovered than others. Praiano is a small, expanding village while Poisitano is a hotspot for eating and shopping. The Island of Capri is all about see and be seen with high-end shops; restaurants and hotels perched high above the sea. The famed “Blue Grotto” is a free-for-all but worth the wait (and the 8.50 Euro somebody is collecting from a boat out front. I couldn’t figure out who they were.)

The rich and famous from all over the world come to Capri to “escape: but their pictures are everywhere, even with framed tabloid covers in the windows of the local restaurants.

The people along the coast were friendly and courteous, very unlike Rome or any other big city. I stayed at the Hotel Tritone (www.tritone.it) with sweeping views of the mountains and the Med with just a turn of your head. It was 690 steps from the hotel down to the beach (yes I walked and counted them) on a staircase that looked straight out of Lord of the Rings. I half expected Saran to be at the top. It’s a great place for a getaway because it’s so remote.

“The road is our friend,” Giuseppe, the manager told me. “It’s hard to get here so trouble doesn’t come out this far.” That’s one way to look at it and I’m sure if you live there, it seems like paradise.

Because it is.