Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Oh We Could Be Heroes

I'm guilty of doing this a lot, I know, but let me take you back to a previous time. For this blog entry, let's try July, 1999.

It was before dinner one night when I walked into the lounge to find my older brother watching the TV intently. To my amazement, it wasn't Baywatch, Eurotrash or anything with female breasts in, but cycling. CYCLING?! BOR-ING, I thought to myself, and settled down on the couch with a magazine. But with the TV turned up loud and the commentator getting rather excited, I found I couldn't concentrate on reading, and soon I was watching along with my frere. And bloody hell, it WAS exciting! The sands of time have meant that names and teams have slipped out of my mind now, but what I can remember of that day was that it was a classic "flat stage" of the Tour de France - a rider was out in front of the main field, desperately trying to cling on and reach the finish line before the main pack caught up to him and swallowed him up. It was absolutely engrossing, and I loved it. The next night, I sat and watched the highlights through choice. I loved the drama of it all, I loved the fact the race was split into different components (best sprinter, best mountain rider etc) and I loved the countryside of France.

And because it was July, 1999, not only was I introduced to the greatest bike race on the planet, but I was introduced to a brash Texan who's name I'm sure you'll all know, whether you know the sport or not. Who's story I'm sure you'll all know, whether you know the sport or not. What you probably don't know however is how much impact Lance Armstrong had on my life. The 'Tour de Lance'? It was for me, and even though I fell in love with the race, I cannot pretend that I watched it as a neutral. From 1999 through to 2005, I felt like I cycled every step with him. The mere mention of Jan Ullrich's name made me flinch and hiss. I LOL'd at people who criticised him. I couldn't understand how people weren't rooting for him.

There's always been smoke around Lance Armstrong, but for him, his legal team and for staunch supporters like me, it was always easy to blow it away with a wave of the hand. Floyd Landis said something? He's a joke. Tyler Hamilton? Ditto. This French man has said this? He hates Armstrong. David Walsh has co-written a book packed full of rumour and suggestion? Well, he's just a prick anyway. A relatively unknown rider has said something? Oooh, who's Mr Jealous Cakes?! And so on and so forth. You casually dismiss each one, you discredit each one, you move on and hope that the noise subsides. But before you know it, the noise comes back, and it's gotten louder.

A few days ago the US television programme "60 Minutes" reported that George Hincapie, for so long a trusted ally of the Texan, is among three former team mates to testify - to a US federal grand jury, no less - that they saw Armstrong use performance enhancing drugs. It doesn't end there, either - is also believed that Hincapie confessed to supplying his team leader with EPO. With Landis or Hamilton or Andreu you can scoff, but not Big George. As the cycling presenter Ned Boulting tweeted:

"It does seem as if the tipping point was reached last night. The momentum all one way now, surely."

And Hincapie himself? He tweeted:

"I can confirm to you I never spoke with '60 Minutes'. I have no idea where they got their information. As I've said in the past, I continue to be disappointed that people are talking about the past in cycling instead of the future. As for the substance of anything in the '60 Minutes' story, I cannot comment on anything related to the ongoing investigation."

Sometimes, it's not what you say. It's what you don't say.

How do I feel? As someone biased, it would be really easy for me to change tack - start telling you how it doesn't matter, it's in the past, everyone else was at it, the end justified the means, look at his charity work etc. But I can't do that. I'm totally sickened by the whole thing - sickened that I was taken in, that I believed, that I held this man up as something he wasn't, that I proudly wore the wristband telling people to "Livestrong". How the fuck does injecting yourself with shit constitute as living strong, Lance? At this moment in time, there's been no confession - only more denials - and no solid evidence, but Ned Boulting is right, I fear. There's always been smoke, but now we're walking round the corner and seeing the fire.

You know the real tragedy of it all? Much like the baseball player Barry Bonds, it's the continuous denials. If you did it, just be a man and say you did it - don't hide, don't pretend. Don't discredit and ridicule everyone who's telling the truth, the people who are trying to make the world see the light. The American people don't hate Barry Bonds because he took drugs - they hate him because he's a jackass. Like Bonds, Armstrong reached the crossroads and picked the wrong turning. I fancy he'll keep on denying until he can deny no longer, but by that time nothing he says will matter. The damage will be done.

The case of Lance Armstrong does underline one thing however - that I must now accept that sport has to be watched through cynical eyes. There are no heroes, no fairy tales, no magic, no perfect stories. Athletes must never be seen as being "role models" to our young people. I was as shocked as most people were about the identity of the footballer who had an affair with Imogen Thomas - I'm not going to name him here but obviously everyone knows who he is - but looking at him through dispassionate eyes, I realised that as long as he played well for my team, I didn't care. That might be a sad state of affairs, but as The Stranglers said, no more heroes.

On my bookshelf I have these items:

DVD and accompanying magazine about Lance Armstrong
"Lance Armstrong: Images of a Champion"
"23 Days in July: Inside Lance Armstrong's Record breaking victory in the Tour de France"
"Lance Armstrong: Tour de Force"
Lance Armstrong's two autobiographies

When the whole truth is revealed - and it will - if you want any of those items, just let me know. Otherwise they're all going in the bin.

A legacy trashed, forever.

1 comment:

  1. I feel for you. I LOVE cycling. The recent tour of California was brilliant, and ITV4s commentary team are really, really good.

    But I've always assumed all Tour cyclists are on drugs. You can't ask people to move that fast, so far, for so long, without pressure from sponsors to take drugs. It was Tom Simpson decades ago (it killed him) and they won't stop now. It's awful, and it ruins a noble sport, but I try to block it out.

    As to Armstrong: I'm taking the Douglas Adams Plea: I refuse to answer on the grounds that I don't know the answer.