PAU, France (The Dissociated Press) - The Tour de France, cycling's premier event and one of the world's oldest and most prestigious athletic competitions, already reeling from a growing doping scandal, was on the verge of total collapse Wednesday after overall leader Michael Rasmussen of Denmark was fired by his Rabobank team for allegedly accepting a blood transfusion from a rhinoceros. The 33 year-old Rasmussen had logged his second stage victory of the Tour only hours earlier.
Even before its start, the 103 year-old Tour was under unusually close scrutiny, due mainly to the controversy of last year --- when it was discovered from carefully-administered post-race urine and blood tests that the winner, American Floyd Landis, had actually been riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for most of the three-week competition (Landis is currently fighting the charges in court; his attorneys claim the motorcycle was a Suzuki).
But immediately following this year's opening stage, in London on July 7th, German cyclist Patrick Sinkewitz was disqualified after being discovered to have failed a drug test shortly before the Tour began.
On July 24th, Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, an early favorite to win the Tour, was suspended when officials learned he had recently undergone surgery to replace his testicles with fuel pellets for a nuclear breeder reactor. As a result of his suspension, Vinokourov's Swiss Astana Cycling Team was forced to withdraw from the race, but team general manager Marc Biver said Astana was hoping to recoup some of its expenses by connecting Vinokourov to an electrical power generation facility near Basel.
Then, on Wednesday, just a few hours prior to the Rabobank announcement on Rasmussen, Italian rider Cristian Moreni of the France-based Cofidis team was taken from the stage 16 finish line in handcuffs by French police after a video tape surfaced showing Moreni the previous Thursday, during the Tour's Marseille to Montpellier 11th stage, driving a testosterone tanker truck and being drafted by his Cofidis teammates, who were attached to the truck with intravenous lines.
With all of the disqualifications and withdrawals, race organizers worried aloud that the caliber and public appeal (which means marketability) of the competition might be suffering.
"I am worried that the caliber and public appeal (which means marketability) of the competition might be suffering," said race Chairman Patrice Clerc Wednesday, in response to Rasmussen's departure.
"I am worried about this too!" added Tour General Director Christian Prudhomme.
Indeed, of the more-than-two-hundred riders who began the race, only three of them remained prior to Thursday's stage 17. And one of those, Björn Helgstrum of Sweden, was in danger of having to drop out after developing problems with his training wheels.
And, in other sports news...
BAGHDAD, Iraq (The Dissociated Press) - Fifty people were killed and more than one hundred were wounded Wednesday during a mass celebration of the Iraqi soccer team's semi-final victory over South Korea in the Asia Cup.
Witnesses said that most of the casualties occurred when a meeting hall in a busy Baghdad neighborhood suddenly exploded. Apparently, twenty five members of Iraq's largest suicide bombers' union --- the Brotherhood of Amalgamated Martyrs, known as "BAM!!" --- were gathered inside the hall at the time.
Describing the scene, neighborhood resident Abdul Khalid, said, "Somebody came running down the street yelling 'They won! They won!!' He kept yelling as he ran inside the building, and I could see through the window that a lot of the men immediately jumped up and started hugging. And then the place completely blew up!
"I don't think it was intentional, though," Khalid said. "Those BAM!! guys are always wearing their explosive vests; sometimes they forget. I think it was the hugging that did it. They were very happy; they're big soccer fans!"