Armstrong's cheating means great British cycling boom feels rotten
22:00 GMT, 14 October 2012
The Gordian knot was the hardest to untie, according to legend. Alexander the Great sliced through it with his sword. There is no such easy solution for cycling and Lance Armstrong.
He cannot simply be excised from the record books, without leaving page after page empty having taken a raft of contemporaries with him. Last week, Christian Prudhomme, head of ASO, the Tour de France organiser, proposed rewriting history to have no winner of the race from 1999 to 2005. Why not just erase Armstrong and promote the next best, some say. Impossible.
If Armstrong goes, all cheats must follow, and for the Tour to remove every name associated with doping would make it seem ridiculous and damage its credibility for ever.
Built on a lie: Lance Armstrong has tainted his whole sport with his use of performance enhancing drugs
For British cycling, the timing of this crisis could not be worse. At the very time when the sport is at last making its great leap forward, 1,000 pages of the most damning criticism land on the doorstep.
A lot of rival sports have dreamed of such progression. Cricket has been vulnerable as the primary summer sport for some time. Parts of the island do not play it, participation is time consuming and costly, land is at a premium.
Football has the winter tied up, we know that. England were rugby union world champions in 2003, but nobody seriously believed inroads could be made on football’s territory.
With cricket, it is different. England rose to be the No 1 Test team in the world but it had little impact on the grass roots. Cricket is dying in state schools, the county game is dwindling in significance. Football has been steadily encroaching on the summer, too.
Then came Bradley Wiggins in the Tour de France and Great Britain’s magnificent performance in the Velodrome at a home Olympics. Suddenly, we were a nation of cyclists. Every kid has a bike and road to ride it on, and in Wiggins the sport has a bona fide, David Beckham-style hero.
He has the talent, he has the look. He
captures young imaginations. Look around, there are more cyclists on the
road than ever before. Not just commuters in cities, either. There are
races, there are clubs, there are grown men pedalling while wearing
Team Sky kit, as they might the shirt of Manchester United.
A lot of history: (left-right, top to bottom) Armstrong celebrates after winning the Tour de France in 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000 and 1999
And now this. Page after page of cheats, cheats, cheats. No wonder Wiggins is furious that his first task as cycling’s unofficial ambassador in Britain is to try to convince the parents of the next generation that his sport will not turn their children into EPO-fuelled monsters.
Trying to unpick Armstrong and his era from cycling is akin to unknotting that tangled ball of old computer leads, mobile-phone chargers and television cables that lurks in a dark corner of a kitchen drawer, except one hundred times worse.
For instance, reassessing two of Armstrong’s victories, 2000 and 2002, and removing every rider who has been caught doping or been significantly implicated in a scandal — one must remember here that many known cheats have not failed a test, including Armstrong — would mean promoting two 10th-placed athletes to first: Daniele Nardello in 2000 and Carlos Sastre in 2002.
The clean winners of the Tour de France in the Armstrong years would be: Abraham Olano (1999, sixth), Nardello (2000, 10th), Andrei Kivilev (2001, fourth), Sastre (2002, 10th), Haimar Zubeldia (2003, fifth), Sastre (2004, eighth) and Cadel Evans (2005, seventh). Throughout those years only two untainted athletes made the top five.
It cuts deeper. L’Alpe d’Huez is arguably the most famous mountain climb in the Tour de France. It is an average 7.9 per cent gradient with 21 hairpin bends. In 1986, the great French rider Bernard Hinault — ‘as long as I breathe, I attack’ — rode the ascent in 48 minutes. His now stands as the 36th fastest time. The record is held by the late Marco Pantani from 1997: it is 10 minutes and 25 seconds faster.
Golden boy: Bradley Wiggins has inspired a generation of British cyclists with his double success in the Tour de France and the London Olympic Games
Sometimes, the numbers simply do not add up. There was huge controversy over Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen at the London Olympics, and many thought it unfair that she was immediately suspected, without evidence.
Yet it wasn’t just laymen or journalists questioning Ye. Respected coaches, looking at the figures in detail, were first to raise the alarm.
So, analysing Pantani, even allowing for improvements in equipment and training techniques, to take 10 minutes off a 48-minute event is close to impossible. Some of L’Alpe d’Huez’s fastest times have been set as part of a time trial, when the athlete hasn’t already cycled 100 miles to get there. To shave three minutes off Hinault in those circumstances might be explicable. But 10 No way. And cycling, in the years cited by Prudhomme, is full of these freaks’ roll calls.
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To erase Armstrong, the sport would as good as erase itself for a decade or more. The year before Armstrong’s 1999 win, the top 10 in the Tour included three riders who tested positive (including the first and second finishers) and another imprisoned for violating anti-doping laws. Of the six remaining, two more have been implicated in scandals. The two successive winners after Armstrong’s last victory in 2005, Floyd Landis and Alberto Contador, were subsequently disqualified.
The problem for cycling in Britain is that its status as a profile sport first began to take shape through Armstrong. From there, home-grown heroes such as Wiggins, Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton took cycling to a place in public life that previous generations could never have imagined.
So, with the condemnation of Armstrong, it is the very foundation of the British cycling boom that appears to be rotten. Unlike the French or Belgians, we have no prior history or culture to cling to, no glorious golden era free of EPO and clandestine blood transfusions.
Instead of promoting a sport full of fresh air and fitness, Wiggins and his colleagues are now on the defensive. It is hardly a surprise that he has been known to snap at questions about doping. It is the last topic that should be regularly tossed at him as a clean rider, the last conversation his sport needs to be having right now; yet if cycling is to fulfil its potential it must first find a way of removing its links to Armstrong on page after page.
It will take a lot more than Tipp-Ex, or a visit to the printers.
Lord help us – just go away
Clearly, former Football Association chairman Lord Triesman, who left his job in embarrassing circumstances involving a female friend and a pack of wild accusations he could not substantiate, now thinks sufficient time has passed for him to re-enter the public arena.
He has been pontificating on John Terry’s punishment, saying little that has not been said, offering nothing in the way of insight or enlightenment. Never just go away, do they
Lecturing: Arsenal chief Ivan Gazidis
Gazidis lecturing on high-earners… that’s rich
Garry Cook, the former chief executive of Manchester City, was at the Leaders in Football conference last week, so too Ivan Gazidis of Arsenal.
Would they be able to justify their 2million salaries for running football clubs, it was asked Cook more than Gazidis, one thinks. He put in place a regime that won the title, albeit after he departed.
All Gazidis has achieved is the continuation of limited success under Arsene Wenger.
Even Arsenal’s pre-tax profit of 36.6m in 2011-12 is largely due to the sale of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Cook helped build an elite club and company almost from scratch — City did not even have a Human Resources department when he arrived — while Gazidis exists on Wenger’s coat-tails yet lectures football on the evils of high-earning.
‘There are issues in terms of how our fans are able to feel connected with those players earning enormous amounts of money,’ Gazidis opined.
He even kept a straight face while he said it, apparently. Now that was an achievement.
So it was all a waste of time. There will be no attempt to supply a Great Britain football team to future Olympic events, according to the FA, and British Handball are not backing their men’s team at the European Championship. Team GB handball players will pay for their own flights for a qualifier against Greece.
Ultimately, elements of Team GB became little more than a publicity stunt and ego trip for the British Olympic Association.
If an Under 21 football team from England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland had qualified for a future Olympic tournament, it could still have competed under the Great Britan umbrella, but all the governing body was interested in was the 2012 show.
As for handball, while funding is bound so closely to elite performance, novices in a sport played in other countries at a serious level for almost a century were never going to stand a chance.
Britain simply took up a place that should have been left to more deserving qualifiers, because as hosts, Britain could. There is no legacy, and little interest in creating one; it was just another box that had to be ticked.
Spain's dominance proves a TV turn-off
UEFA’s belief that the 2016 European Championship qualifying campaign will be one huge televised cash cow appears to have taken another hit with the news that no Iberian TV station would buy the rights for Spain’s World Cup qualifier in Belarus at the weekend.
Is anyone watching anymore Spain celebrate yet another win in Belarus
Sportfive, the German rights holder, wanted 1.3million to see the world champions but the major networks in Spain have been hit hard by recession. Even the radio stations baulked and broadcast from hotel bedrooms in Minsk instead, watching the action on television.
This is the first time since 1983 that the national team has not been shown live in Spain, but all that superiority is getting boring and fans will not pay to watch a game in which the result is so easily predicted. Spain beat Belarus 4-0.
This situation will only worsen with almost half the entrants for Euro 2016 progressing to the finals. When even the best team in the world cannot generate interest, there truly is a problem.
Time's up, Audley
Audley Harrison lasted just 82 seconds against David Price on Saturday. His career as a professional heavyweight fighter, such as it ever really existed, is over.
Before the fight the consistently disappointing and deluded Harrison said he was in the Last Chance Saloon.
Sadly, time was called on him in that particular establishment long ago. Harrison then adjourned to the Last Chance Restaurant, the Last Chance Nightclub, the Last Chance Chill-Out Room, the Last Chance Breakfast Bar and Grill and the Last Chance All You Can Eat Mongolian Buffet before ending up at the Last Chance Set Dinner For One, three courses, 12.99 with a complimentary glass of wine.
He’s had enough last chances. Now he’s had his chips. It’s time to go home.
Down and out: David Price KO's Audley Harrison in Liverpool on Saturday
Ajax happy to clean out football fans, too
Further to last week’s note about the exorbitant cost of watching Barcelona play Real Madrid, it has now been revealed that tickets for Manchester City fans at their next Champions League match with Ajax in Amsterdam will be 65. That is 3 more than the cost of the cheapest seat for Arsenal’s game with Chelsea recently, which caused such fuss.
Nobody is saying Premier League football is cheap; more that the game in many European countries is run no more benevolently than here.
Wonga’s controversial sponsorship of Newcastle could not happen in France or Germany. Not because financial institutions are not allowed involvement, but because there is no such thing as a legal 4,212 per cent interest rate. The ceiling in France is 21.64 per cent, and in Germany 16.4 per cent.
That is how a nation regulates its financial services industry: not by appealing to Mike Ashley’s better nature.