Sponsors reconsidering after doping scandals

 
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CAHORS, France, July 27 (Reuters) Cycling sponsors are reconsidering their involvement in the sport after the series of doping scandals which have rocked the Tour de France.

The world's greatest cycling race is now without the Astana and Cofidis teams over doping affairs and former overall leader Michael Rasmussen, who was sacked by Rabobank for having lied about his training whereabouts.

French company Cofidis, whose contract finishes at the end of the 2008 season, is unlikely to renew its deal with the cycling team after Italy's Cristian Moreni tested positive for testosterone following the 11th stage of the Tour.

''It can have serious consequences on the future of the team'', team manager Eric Boyer said after Cofidis withdrew from the race.

Rabobank announced yesterday that it was to reconsider its involvement in cycling.

''We always reconsider if something big is happening and this is big,'' Helen Crielaard, head of sponsorship at Rabobank, said in an interview with Reuters television.

''We have to reconsider once we get all the facts. Maybe we will change the way we are involved,'' said Crielaard, who added that Rabobank also sponsored the sport at a local level in the Netherlands and that would certainly continue.

''At this point there is no reason to just finish our sponsorship. But we cannot go on like this for 10 years if it doesn't get better.'' German Patrik Sinkewitz's positive test for testosterone during a training camp in June prompted T-Mobile to reflect on its sponsorship.

MANY SPONSORS In Spain, many sponsors have long since left the sport.

The regional governments of the Balearic islands, Illes Balears, and Valencia (Comunitat Valencianna) ended their links with cycling in the past two years.

Insurance firm Liberty Seguros, sportswear manufacturers Kelme, Spanish bank Banesto and the Spanish organisation for the blind ONCE have all withdrawn support.

Some of the smaller regional tours in Spain have struggled for sponsorship lately. Spanish state television stopped televising the races although it is still a very popular sport in Spain.

However, there is still hope.

The head of Volkswagen's Czech unit Skoda, one of the Tour's four main sponsors and currently evaluating their backing, sounded positive.

''Sponsoring the Tour de France fits our strategy. If I exaggerate it, we have one half of Europe covered by hockey, and the other half by cycling,'' Vratislav Kulhanek, head of Skoda's supervisory board, told the Czech daily Hospodarske Noviny.

''I do worry about doping, but I care more about watching (Kazakh Alexander) Vinokourov appearing on the news four times and an accompanying Skoda being seen behind him four times.'' Francaise des Jeux president Christophe Blanchard-Dignac is to set up a meeting with the executives of the companies involved in cycling to consolidate their involvement in the sport.

''We need sponsors with goodwill,'' Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme said.

Predictor, which has Australian Cadel Evans in its team, believes it has to stay in the sport to fight doping.

''What is happening is not that serious. It would be if nothing had happened,'' said Predictor president Marc Coucke.

Unibet has no plans to stop sponsoring cycling.

''Our team has a very strict anti-doping policy and at the moment we have no plans to reconsider the cooperation,'' Unibet head of investor relations Inga Lundberg said.

REUTERS TB BD2102

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