“Volta returns to Portugal today against the ghost of doping” headlined Portuguese newspaper Diario de Noticias, and this particular developing story is probably good enough for Hollywood, let alone black-and-white print.
Failing that, cycling’s unique connection to professional football in Portugal brings another strange undercurrent to the whole story.
People on the ground in Lisbon say the 83rd edition of the race sets off from the capital in a heavy atmosphere. Four riders believed to be on the starting line are not, a result of the anti-doping ‘Operation Clean Test’, which also saw the winners of the last nine Voltas, W52-FC Porto, suspended from competition.
The four absentees from the race come from three of the best Portuguese national teams: Luis Mendonça from Glassdrive-Q8-Anicolor, João Benta and Francisco Campos from Efapel and Daniel Freitas who rides for Rádio Popular-Paredes-Boavista.
Mendonça was removed by Glassdrive as the team wanted to ‘protect their image’, Campos had his contract terminated by his team despite his protestations of innocence while Benta also claimed nothing untoward was discovered at his residence during the raids which involved 120 officers searching dozens of properties and resulting in two arrests as well as “several substances and clinical instruments [being] seized, used in the training of athletes and having an impact on their athletic performance.
Both Campos and Freitas have previously driven for W52-FC Porto, the team at the center of Operation Clean Test following an anonymous tip to the police last year and subjected to their own raid four months ago. Banned doping substances were reportedly discovered and team members were subsequently suspended. As the investigation progressed, only three riders on the team remained eligible to race and not suspended. The team still planned to race the Volta a Portugal despite its limited numbers but was suspended by the UCI after violating its anti-doping regulations on July 27. A day later, FC Porto, a football club in Portugal’s top league, withdrew its branding. and team license agreement.
Portugal’s anti-doping chief, António Júlio Nunes, said he faced threats following the team’s suspension and his family was placed under police protection.
“Unfortunately, the threats to my physical integrity are piling up, and unfortunately my family had to be put under police surveillance at home,” Nunes wrote on his LinkedIn page. In the envelope containing these threats of violence delivered to his home was also a bullet cartridge, pictured above.
These are the clouds under which the Volta a Portugal started and will likely remain as the peloton races across the country over the next two weeks. It’s a mess. But what does this mean for sport in Portugal?
The loss of FC Porto, one of the biggest and most successful football teams in the country, is a blow. For FC Porto, their name is now associated with doping and gives weight to the constant reiteration of Benfica, another football club which once sponsored a two-wheeled team, that they will not return to cycling due to the harmful connotations .
On late night football phone-in shows on the radio, rival supporters use cycling fallout as a stick to beat FC Porto over the head. This further damages the image of professional cycling in Portugal with little attention given to sports stars such as João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) and Ruben Guerreiro (EF Education EasyPost) who have made their way out of their country origin to the top of the sport.
The loss of FC Porto appears as a final nail in the coffin of the peculiar but intriguing way in which Portuguese cycling works. The big football teams that dominate the country’s sporting landscape don’t pay to appear on cycling shirts, but teams can leverage the brand name to attract other sponsors, as fans of the football club will likely support the team’s cycling. counterparts. At least, that’s how it has apparently worked for the past 15 years or so, locals of the Portuguese scene tell CyclingTips. If you go back to the 1950s and 1960s, it wasn’t just financial, there were fierce battles between FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon, with half of all overall wins at the Volta a Portugal being split between these three.
There are other political implications beyond football. With FC Porto out of the race, towns in the north of the country don’t want to host the race if their team isn’t racing.
And let’s not forget that not all Portuguese runners are doping. There are athletes in the peloton who race for no minimum wage. Many are U23 and U25 and are racing in the stage race with the hope of attracting the attention of a Spanish ProTeam.
For cycling fans, their summer memories are of days spent on the beach before watching the stages of the Volta each afternoon. Now, with the specter of doping looming once more, the waters are muddy and the seas are now choppy enough to keep you ashore.
“Cycling in Portugal is going through a difficult period,” concluded Nunes. “But perhaps now is the best time for those who truly love this sport to find solutions to protect this same sport which has a safe place in the hearts of all Portuguese people.”