Taxpayer-funded appearance invaluable to Australian race
With the recent focus on the alleged doping practices of Lance Armstrong, both the Premier of South Australia where the Tour Down Under is held and race director Mike Turtur, have reaffirmed their support for the now-retired American.
The 2009 Tour Down Under marked Armstrong's return to the professional peloton while this year's edition was his final competitive race.
There is no doubt that the Tour Down Under is a successful, well-managed event and will continue to be, regardless of the outcome of the FDA investigation into Armstrong. However, the use of taxpayer dollars to fund appearances of controversial figures can be polarising.
The event's rise in popularity and Armstrong's presence over the past three years have been inexorably linked with the race consistently marketed as "Your chance to see Lance." Attendance figures, economic impact, and media coverage all rose when the Tour Down Under received ProTour status from the UCI for its 2008 edition. But with Armstrong's participation from 2009 through 2011, those figures increased significantly again. This year alone, over 780,000 spectators watched Australia's WorldTour race, while over $43 million was injected into the South Australian economy.
Turtur was on the front foot when speaking to Cyclingnews following the CBS Network's "60 Minutes" report, featuring allegations made by Armstrong's former teammate Tyler Hamilton which suggested the seven-time Tour de France winner not only used EPO, but encouraged its use within the US Postal team.
"If you're saying to me: 'are you sorry that we had Lance Armstrong at the race?' absolutely not," Turtur said "Why would we be?
"The allegations that are against him [Armstrong] at the moment are made by two people in particular who I believe have no credibility whatsoever... I don't believe anything that Hamilton or Landis says. They can't be believed; they can't be listened to because of what they've done in the past. Until such time as there's 100 percent clear, factual evidence to indicate clearly that there's an issue then I'll listen to that."
The Tour Down Under is partially funded by the South Australian Government. Race staff have long acknowledged that Armstrong has been paid a fee, believed to be up to $3 million per year to attend the Australian WorldTour event, however the exact figure is deemed "commercially in confidence" by the South Australian Government.
Premier Rann released a statement praising the Texan, following the "60 Minutes" report going to air without referring to it directly.
"Lance Armstrong's involvement in the Tour Down Under has helped launch the race on to the world stage," he said.
"We saw a massive increase in attendances, economic benefit and world wide media coverage of the event as a result of Lance's participation.
"We have always found Lance Armstrong to be a good friend to SA [South Australia] and we have always found him to be extraordinarily honourable in all our dealings with him."
Upon his first visit to the race in 2009, Rann announced that the research wing at the Flinders Centre for Innovation in Cancer which was under construction would be named the LiveStrong Cancer Research Centre in line with Armstrong's anti-cancer charity.
In 2009 and in the years since, Armstrong has spent numerous hours visiting cancer patients both in Adelaide and around Australia while checking on the progress of the construction at the Centre.
"I was extraordinarily impressed with his commitment to raising funds for cancer research and treatment and his preparedness to spend time with cancer sufferers," Rann said.
"The day before his first race in the TDU he spent five hours with cancer patients young and old, doctors and researchers here in Adelaide."
There appears to be mutual admiration between the cyclist and Rann, with Armstrong tweeting to his 2.7 million followers "Rann is my man" while he was running for re-election last year.
When news of Armstrong's appearance fees initially hit the headlines in 2009, Rann trumpeted that the money was actually going to the cancer survivor's charity. Armstrong however then told the New York Times that he was treating the payment as income.
"It's not simply showing up to a bike race and getting paid to race the bike," he informed the publication. "I'm not being paid to race. Is there a fee for other things? Yes, but that's not any different than what I've done the last three or four years, actually longer than that."
The Premier's spokesman Rick Morris told Cyclingnews that the allegations raised by "60 Minutes" should not cloud Armstrong's involvement with the race, while the taxpayer dollars that fund the cyclist's appearance should not be brought into question.
"However much Lance Armstrong was paid to come to South Australia, it's a very small fraction of what the State generated through the Tour Down Under," he said. "The Tour Down Under is more than just Lance – it was before it will be after but at a certain point he helped bring a very strong profile to the race."
Tourism South Australia confirmed that they were not in negotiation with Armstrong to make an appearance off the bike at the 2012 event, scheduled to get under way January 15.
Meantime, Turtur suggests that it's better to judge Armstrong on his results - "I know it's hard to believe but there are 1 in 100-year athletes that produce a packing physically and psychologically, that makes them pretty unique people and we still have to believe that that's the case – not only in cycling but in all sports."
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