Words by Lionel Birnie
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How many 12 year olds discover a love of cycling and spend all their hours daydreaming about getting on their bike?
How many of them gaze out of the classroom window on a sunny afternoon wishing they could be out in the lanes? I know I did.
How many of the more gifted children look forward to racing at the weekend? It may be just a short circuit race but in their minds they are in the Tour de France. Bike gleaming, jersey, shorts and shoes just so. The sensation of pressing harder on the pedals to put the others under pressure, the feeling of cutting through the air, that searing but somehow satisfying streak of hotness that surges through the leg muscles, the heart and lungs pumping. How fantastic. This is what it is to be alive.
But at what point does all that have to be put into a more pragmatic, entirely cynical context? At what point should that 12-year-old’s optimism and enthusiasm give way to the grubby realism of a professional sport and its maladministration?
As the allegations against Lance Armstrong dominated the news agenda following Sports Illustrated’s article, it didn’t take long before someone – Floyd Landis this time – suggested that doping should be legalised. Just rip up the rules and let everyone get on with it. If it’s not illegal, the rules can’t be broken and the sport’s reputation cannot be damaged.
Brilliant. Problem solved.
This is one half of the argument for legalisation: Genetic doping is on the way, they say. Human growth hormone is used every day by some people to keep them looking and feeling young, fresh and vital. Drugs are part of life. Got a headache, take a pill. Develop a rash and you’ll be prescribed a substance to make it go away. Get really ill and drugs become essential to keep us alive. Wake up everyone, drugs are here to stay.
And of course they are.
This is the other half of the argument: Drugs and sport are intertwined. It’s always gone on. In the 20s it was strychnine and other pain killers, then it was amphetamines, then blood transfusions and blood boosters. The ruthlessly ambitious, the desperate and the plain corrupt will always, always seek an advantage. That’s just human nature. The drugs are difficult to detect, requiring ever more invasive incursions into the athlete’s private life to spot physiological trends that only highly-qualified experts can analyse. Show the average fan two blood profiles and you may as well show them a map of the Ardennes. The drugs are not going to go away. Trying to root them and their users out is futile. It’s a losing battle. Detect this and the athletes will move onto that. It’s always been that way. Why fight it?
Let’s take the first argument first. Yes, drugs are part of life and they have their place. But their place is not, and should not be, to make athletes run, cycle or swim faster (or throw further or jump higher, for that matter).
It is a misconception that sport represents a level playing field. It does not. One man blessed with bigger lungs than the next has an advantage. The idea of sport is to find out who’s the best. That’s the whole point. That’s the only point. Take that away and you are left with the conclusion that cycling has become a marketing exercise on wheels. Just how the UCI would like it, presumably.
The second argument stinks. So, because one person takes drugs, we must compel the others to do so in order to compete? Do we take the same view with everything in life? If one person carries a knife ‘for protection’, must we all?
Besides, individual people respond differently to the way drugs work. Take athlete A and athlete B, give them the same EPO programme and it does not necessarily follow that they will react in the same way. Athlete B may benefit more. Or maybe Athlete A will. Or perhaps Athlete B has access to a better doctor.
And where do we draw the line? Do we have limits on certain drugs or do we allow the most ruthlessly ambitious to push back the boundaries until they reach the grave? Having limits would be pointless. The culture proves to us that if you draw a line someone will step over it. So let’s make sport a giant game of Russian roulette. Just keep going until you’ve got blood thicker than porridge. Just keep going until you have developed hormonal problems. Just keep going until you’ve transfused and drained your blood a dozen times over.
The point is, if we make doping legal we force our 12-year-old dreamers to do things to their bodies when they get older that no one in their right mind would endorse if they actually sat down and thought about it. Legalise it and you make it all but compulsory.
The reason doping can’t be legalised is because the authorities and the marketing men know that the public would not want it. You can’t sell the dream of crossing the line first, arms aloft, alongside an image of the same cyclist hooked up to a blood bag. The punters wouldn’t like it. So it has to stay hidden, denied, glossed over.
The biggest deceit is that sport is marketed to appeal to a sense of the heroic. The fighting spirit and bravery is what sells. How it’s all too often achieved is tucked away out the back.
No one boasts that they’re going to do really well this season because they’ve got an excellent doctor and they’ve worked out the perfect cocktail of substances and timetable for blood transfusions. No one talks about this stuff for one simple reason. Because they know it’s wrong.
Many in the media and the public labour away in innocence. They either don’t care – and I’d argue they don’t care because they don’t truly understand – or they choose to disbelieve the allegations and put their faith in the more glamorous image.
For many, sport is a diversion from the grind of everyday life. They want to switch on the TV and be entertained. They come to it in a malleable state, ready to believe. And that is what makes it even more cynical.
Call it an unrealistic, idealistic view but why should we allow money, power and rampant, unchecked self-interest to run sport?
Yes, it’s a business and people’s livelihoods depend on it but this is our hobby. Your hobby.
Just because money and reputations are at stake, does it mean we should rip up what is right, decent and honest?
But do you know who needs to justify themselves even more than the cheating dopers and those who help them break the rules in their cynical, manipulative way?
It is the otherwise decent, honest people who turn a blind eye. People who are happy to wallow around in a sport that at times resembles a three-inch pool of rancid, stagnant water while avoiding that which must be obvious.
The willingness of good people to tolerate it in silence and weather each media storm has become despicable. The conciliatory language is feeble and meaningless and deserves no respect. Their desire not to rock the boat is pathetic. The level of protectionism and self-interest at play from powerful people in the sport of cycling is a disgrace and should not be tolerated any longer.
The money flows in from the sponsors or rich benefactors and so they look out for their interests. Those people – and they will know in their hearts whether they fit into this category – should be utterly ashamed of themselves for failing the sport they profess to love.
They didn’t choose this fight but if they are to continue in cycling with any thread of dignity they must take it on. They expect rights. The right to compete, the right to earn a living, but they shirk their responsibilities. It has always been a mystery to me that someone can take part in the Tour de France, dedicating months of training, and involving the work of dozens of people, only to have their backside handed to them on a plate by someone who has later been found to be cheating – and then express no firm opinion one way or the other. Or to say that they were concentrating on what they did and can’t control what anyone else does.
You what? You’ve just been peeled and diced by a cheat, and you don’t feel a sense of frothing anger rising in your throat? You are so PR savvy, so in hock to your precious sponsors that you can’t say anything that might reflect badly on them? Tell you what, organise another media day, invite a few VIPs to a nice hotel, make it all better.
All you are doing is allowing it to continue. Maybe not in your team but elsewhere. By failing to do what is right for fear of losing what, money, a sponsor, a place in a big race, you choose to compromise your values that much?
And if I were the father of a 12 year old who dreamed of being a professional cyclist I would say: “Keep riding your bike but find something meaningful to do with your life. Even if you take off your shoes and socks and roll up your trousers, you’ll still get shit all over your feet.”
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