A look at the European media’s reaction to Tom Boonen’s cocaine bust
When the news of Tom Boonen’s positive test for cocaine surfaced on May 9, the Belgian media was left reeling; only a few months earlier, Boonen had been relieved to hear that he wouldn’t be criminally charged for last year’s out of competition positive cocaine test, and suddenly here he was, in the same trouble again. How could Boonen – megastar, playboy, media darling and the closest thing to a national hero that Belgium has – be defended for such a boneheaded move?
Initially, the reaction was a mixed bag of sad surprise, desperate rationalization, and angry “how could you?” finger-wagging. A mere week after capping off his classics season with his third win in Paris-Roubaix, Boonen had thrown it all away in what began as a few beers at café terrace and turned into a night of alcohol-fueled partying in which he claimed not to remember doing lines of cocaine in the bathroom. By the evening the story broke, he was appearing on Belgian television, head hanging, trying to explain and begging for forgiveness: “364 days of the year, everything is fine, but the one day I drink too much, I black out, lose control and find myself doing these things”, he said. “I need to get help. I need someone to help me learn what happens to me when I drink too much, the way I become a different person.”
Even his mother posted an emotional plea on his Web site to his fans and the media, asking for understanding and compassion, and reminding everyone to be respectful in their reactions to and comments on this latest disaster in the life of Tom Boonen. “Tom has made a mistake that’s he’s paying dearly for now,” she wrote. “Does this give anyone the right to use him as a target for their nasty words and opinions? Leave him in peace to seek the help he needs.” Later she asked that Boonen be supported in these tough times, rather than vilified for one evening of admittedly bad judgement, given that in the rest of the year, “he provides us with such happiness and unforgettable moments.” Boonen himself posted an entry few days later, thanking his many fans for their cards, letters, flowers and support.
Shortly afterward, the various European press began to muse over the ethical side to Boonen’s case. Should famous athletes be allowed to party like the rest of us? Do we expect too much from our role models in their private lives? And the million dollar question: in a cycling world where so many in-competition positive tests for performance-enhancing drugs occur, how can the UCI even think of punishing someone for an positive out-of-competition test for cocaine — a substance that’s not even banned according to WADA? The Belgian consumer organization Dolor even launched a campaign calling for a boycott of the Tour de France and criticizing the “hypocritical stance” of the UCI, noting that suspending Boonen for six months and refusing to allow him to take part in the Tour was actually contrary to Belgian employment rights laws. Since then, Boonen’s lawyer has announced his intention to fight both the suspension and his exclusion from the Tour, though the Quick Step team have already stated they will not ask to have that decision overturned as they had last year.
Taking Tom’s mother’s words to heart, the Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad has published a lengthy interview (conducted by Frank Poosen and Hugo Coorevits) with Quick Step’s team manager entitled “Patrick Lefevere Has Had It: Tom is a Mama’s Boy.” Lefevere, a former pro himself, has been in the business a long time and carries more weariness than wariness when he talks about high-profile riders such as Tom Boonen. Questioned about the media frenzy that surrounded the Boonen story, he has no problem blasting journalists for trying to sell papers and wondering aloud who needs therapy more: Boonen or them? Surely Lefevere’s outspoken and very quotable manner serves in part to take the heat off his team and its top rider, but even so he openly admits his anger and disappointment with the situation. The night Boonen called him with the news, he told the rider curtly that he would take some time to think about the whole thing and call him back. When? “I didn’t tell him, I thought, let him stew over it for a while”. And what about the other riders, what has been their reaction? “Nothing”, says Lefevere, “they don’t have the balls to tell me to my face what they think. They don’t even dare call me, they know which side their bread is buttered on when it comes to Boonen.”
Talking about the top riders he’s managed, words like “celebrity,” “narcissist,” and “little Napoleon” pop up, but at the same time Lefevere is protective of his riders, knowing they are vulnerable and need just the right amount of freedom – not too much, not too little — to achieve their potential. This is true even for a rider who has nearly sent the entire team up in smoke, risking the jobs of 65 people. In fact, confided Lefevere to his interviewers, “if Boonen hadn’t been such a mama’s boy and had behaved like a professional should, then he would have stayed in Monaco and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” But still, such a star is not unusual, and the older they get, the more they need to be handled with kid gloves to keep them happy. It’s all about the respect they get in the peloton and the palmares they’ve built up. Boonen is no longer the young guy he once was, and must be at the point in his career when he’s starting to think about the legacy he will leave behind.
It’s for this reason that Lefevere is most upset by the UCI’s decision to suspend Boonen. And by characterizing Boonen as someone with a “problem,” the Tour de France organization can make his exclusion from the race uncontroversial. But is part of his therapy to be banned from racing? If you take away from somebody what he’s both capable of and good at, does that not work against the goals of any reasonable rehabilitation?
At the end of the day, it’s not that hard to sympathize with Boonen, even feel a bit sorry for him. He’s like a Hollywood movie star in his home country, getting paid very well for doing a job he loves. Women fall at his feet, sponsors pay him handsomely to advertise their products, and autograph-seekers are never far away. Lefevere can imagine that someone like Boonen could be led astray and tempted into a dangerous lifestyle, whether that be illicit party drugs, fast Italian cars, or 16-year-old girlfriends with model looks (as Sophie van Vliet was in 2007 when they dated). Is it even possible to protect him from that, protect what Lefevere has termed a “little kid who’s broken the cookie jar and now regrets it” from himself? Maybe, but ultimately Boonen is an adult and must be trusted to behave accordingly, even if he ends up letting down his employers, teammates and countrymen, and has to serve the consequences. He’s only human after all.