Chapeaus

October 23rd, 2012

For the third time, Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his Tour de France titles, and more or less everything else. He’s still World Champion from 1993. Still a winner of the San Sebastian classic. His cameo in Dodgeball is his to keep. But that’s about it. We’ve all pulled over his giant statue. He’s now starting a new career as a cautionary tale.

The focus now is on the UCI, and especially the press conference yesterday where an increasingly testy president Pat McQuaid spent an hour batting away the suggestion that the UCI might have done anything wrong. Yes, cycling was host to the largest conspiracy ever seen in any sport (well, there are one or two other teams from the 1990s who may secretly feel they’ve been unfairly overlooked) but no, you could hardly have expected the UCI to do anything about it, because people kept lying to them.

That was, at any rate, the general thrust. And it’s true that the testing regime for EPO was in its early stages – those who felt it was more a test for catching the stupid than the merely dishonest were probably about right. And it’s true that the nature of a conspiracy is that they don’t have a Facebook group. But… well, look at it this way. Even I knew that it was possible to evade an EPO test. I didn’t know where you might buy EPO, or how to take it, but I knew that those who wanted to use it could slip through the tests by careful timing and taking lots of very small doses. (And, it now turns out, hiding behind the sofa. Thanks, Tyler.) If I knew, it’s inconceivable that the UCI didn’t know.

Indeed they admitted as much with the 50% haematocrit rule, which was designed to save lives, and did so.

The issue, though, isn’t one of chemistry. The issue is that the UCI, in common with many other governing bodies, is responsible for two different things. They have to sell the sport, and police the sport. And the suspicion that that the cynical might have that maybe the UCI with its policeman hat on didn’t look too hard, in case it was forced to acknowledge seeing something that was going to make its other life, with its salesman’s hat on, impossible

Like Railtrack, in the days when it was responsible for both making a profit running railway lines and for diminishing those profits by spending the money required to keep the lines safe. It could really only do one or the other. In both cases, a train crash is inevitable. It doesn’t even require any real dishonesty, it just requires that you focus on one thing to the exclusion of the other.

Lance Armstrong’s donations are the clearest example. Let’s forget the idea that they were a bribe, and accept that they were used for anti-doping activities. Indeed, let’s just assume that the whole thing was as above board as it could have been. As Pat McQuaid said yesterday, the UCI isn’t, in the context of these things, an especially rich organisation. So $100,000 would be very useful to an organisation that was promoting a sport, or trying to clean one up.

But the UCI has its other hat. You can’t allow those who are being policed to give the police money. It is the most basic conflict of interests you can think of. If I went to the local police station with a bright innocent smile and gave the desk sergeant £100 for any purpose he wanted, I’d probably get arrested. (Well, I ought to get arrested. I might, instead, have bribed my way out of being arrested for bribing a police officer, and got into a virtuous circle of paying my way out of my next crime rather than my last, but you see what I mean.) The same would apply with knobs on if I tried it with the judge.

It’s all the more unbelievable that the UCI would accept money (‘we’d do it differently’) from riders again in the future. Even if it’s done with the most high-minded of intentions, they shouldn’t even countenance it.

The years since Armstrong’s last Tour win have seen real progress in anti-doping. The tests are better, though not flawless, and they’re backed up with better investigation processes. The anti-doping agencies have more independence than they did.

We may even be edging towards a point where whistleblowers are accepted and protected. It’s ironic, but welcome, that some of the initiative is coming up from the teams rather than down from the UCI. All the same, I’m quite sure the sport is significantly cleaner now than it was in 2005, and the UCI takes some of the credit.

But you also have to remember that the UCI’s reaction to the whole USADA investigation that brought Armstrong down wasn’t 100% supportive. Yesterday, not long after he acknowledged the assistance given to USADA by some of Armstrong’s former team mates in the form of reduced bans, he was reported as describing some of them as ‘scumbags’ who had damaged cycling. That’s the other hat again, right there.

The IOC, the BOA and the CAS

October 7th, 2011

Yesterday the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that the IOC’s rule 45 was invalid – the rule that prevented athletes who’d served a doping ban of six months or longer from competing at the next Olympics. It was, they said, against the WADA code, and amounted to punishing athletes twice for the same offence. The reasoning is pretty cogent – indeed the BOA’s rule preventing Olympic selection of any athlete with a doping conviction would seem pretty unlikely to withstand a challenge at the CAS.

The only obvious way round it would be for WADA to add the provision to the code. I don’t suppose they will, but I wish they would.

I’m not really a big supporter of life-bans for a first offence, not across the board. Even apart from false positives, there are plenty of athletes who get involved with supplements that frankly they should have had the sense to avoid (a penis enhancer from the local drugstore, Mr Merritt? You really thought that was good idea?) or who use entirely legitimate-looking medications (Alain Baxter) that turn out to produce a positive test.

At the other end of the scale there are ‘first offences’ that clearly come as a result of careful, deliberate defrauding of other athletes, sponsors and fans – the BALCO designer-steroid scandal springs to mind. For them, I’d be a huge fan of a life ban. But for several tiresome but valid practical reasons, there is a standard-length ban, and it’s probably a reasonable compromise.

I would like the Olympics to have something special about them. I know that the Olympics are just part of the business of international sport, the same as all the other major events. But I’d still like it to be our best shot at a having an event that’s as untainted as it possibly can be.

It’s an emotional response, hell, even I know it’s at least a bit naive, but I can’t help it. The Olympics started out as event with an ethos that was anything but professional, about sport as something that meant more than just the advancement of careers – think of Jesse Owens and his German rival Luz Long’s friendship at the Berlin Olympics. The Olympics doesn’t have a monopoly on sportsmanship or on sport as a uniting force, and the IOC has been hardly the most ethically noble of organizations, but the Games are still something that unites nations and people like no other sports event.

I feel like I’m in a minority here – I know I’m in a minority as far as the sports industry and press are concerned. Soon will come the comments and emails that follow any public statement of an anti-doping nature – ‘Haven’t you ever made a mistake Michael?’ ‘What would you do if you team manager hinted your career would go better if you had a little help?’ ‘It’s about money – it’s pro sport, so you have to accept that athletes will do what they have to to get ahead.’ ‘How dare you comment on doping if you were never a top-level pro, you’re even worse than Kimmage?’ (All these are from genuine past communications.)

I’ve made mistakes, yes. None of them involved sustained attempts to defraud others. None of them involved quasi-criminal dishonesty at the level demonstrated by a committed doper.

Athletes are responsible for their own actions – ‘I was only obeying orders’ didn’t work at Nuremberg, and I don’t see why it should work here. (Although there are cases involving young athletes where some flexibility about the punishment would be sensible.)

And if you think doping is OK because it was the only way to get an end-of-season bonus is OK, then doubtless that means MPs fiddling their expenses is OK too. But there never seems much point in arguing.

There is no ‘right’ to compete in sport, even if you are a pro. Dopers returning to competition aren’t comparable to ex-cons reintegrating into society, because in the end an ex-con has to be fitted back in somewhere, and a doper doesn’t. Yet most dopers return after two years, and are broadly accepted back, even by fellow competitors. That’s actually pretty broad-minded. It doesn’t seem to me an extraordinary proposal that we should sincerely try to keep something out of the mire.

Blenheim and Mildenhall

August 26th, 2011

I was at Bike Blenheim last weekend. Modesty prevents me from detailing exactly how my racing went, save to say that I left Blenheim with my personal estate enhanced to the tune of a folding bike, a pair of sunglasses, and a rather curious giant pipe-cleaner that turns out to be brilliant for removing gunk from a cassette.

I love Bike Blenheim. I went to the first two, in 2008 and 2009, and was sorry to miss last year. The racing is good, the world Brompton champs is impossible to either watch or participate in with a straight face, and the setting is perfect. 8000 people came to Blenheim. It’s exactly what cycling in the UK needs, something that builds on all the growth in participation and the still increasing enthusiasm for mass-participation sportive rides.

This weekend, I’ll probably go over to the Mildenhall Rally, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. And I’m a bit puzzled by my inability to nail down the difference between Mildenhall and Blenheim. They’re both big events, they both essentially take place in a field, they’re both devoted to cycling. But they’re really not the same.

I think perhaps Blenheim is more about getting out and riding, having fun on a bike. Mildenhall feels like it’s more about meeting old friends, having a drink. Not so much riding a bike as just being a bike rider. But that’s only a difference in emphasis. It’s not very much. You can ride at Mildehnall, there’s grass-track, touring rides and audax. You can stand around at Blenheim and talk to old mates.

A bigger difference is that Mildenhall is an older event, full of people who’ve been riding a bike for decades, or who come from families steeped in old cycling. People who know their E1/25b from their E33/25, and know how to install a threaded headset. Blenheim is younger, not in terms of the age of the crowd, but in terms of how long they’ve been riding. It’s more modern, in the good and bad senses of the word. Blenheim buzzes with an enthusiasm for riding. Mildenhall has an air of contentment with a lifestyle choice well made.

What’s most curious of all is how two different generations of riders have ended up with events that are the same in everything except feel. If you’ve enjoyed one, you’d enjoy the other.

WADA and the Steak

June 15th, 2011

The latest development in the world of doping in sport appears to be some doubt on behalf of the World Anti Doping Agency about clenbuterol. Clenbuterol is, of course, at the centre of the current long-running Alberto Contador saga – the 2010 Tour de France winner failed a test for a very, very small quantity of the asthma drug during last year’s Tour, and claimed, rather memorably, that it was from a contaminated steak he’d eaten. Specifically, a steak from Spain, where clenbuterol is, he clams, used (illicitly) in livestock farming.

WADA seems recently to have admitted the possibility of this sort of contamination, which is going to have knock-on effects on the Court of Arbitration for Sport hearing on the Contador case that’s scheduled for after this year’s Tour.

The real issue is not what drugs are banned, what quantities they’re banned it, where they come from, or even what their effects are.

The real issue is the strict liability element of current drug-enforcement. As things stand, if something banned is found in your system, that’s it. You’re guilty. Certain cases, on a wildly inconsistent basis, seem to find gaps in this, but that’s the principle, and the only real flexibility is the punishment handed down.

Now, if this were a criminal matter, that’s not how it would work. While strict liability does exist for some criminal offences, they’re rare, and doping in sport would not be one of them. Criminal offences require not only a ‘guilty act’, but a ‘guilty mind’. In doping, you’d have to show that a substance was taken, and then you’d have to show that it was taken knowingly, with the intention of improving performance.

The reason doping regulations don’t follow the criminal model is simply one of practicality. It would be very difficult to prove the mental elements of the offence. Strict liability increases the conviction rate. But it does it at the cost of convicting some athletes who are innocent in all the respects that matter to justice. Alain Baxter, the skier, is the classic example. He took an over-the-counter cold remedy that had different ingredients in North America from those that he’d carefully checked in the UK version, and which had no influence on his performance anyway. Still guilty.

WADA are now in the deeply uncomfortable position of pursuing Contador, while at the same time having raised doubts about the mental elements of his offence. In effect, they’ve come close to admitting he might be right after all, while at the same time maintaining a set of regulations that in essence say that even if he’s right, it doesn’t matter.

The Court of Arbitration is now in an impossible position. They can’t find him guilty, but they can’t let him off (assuming they accept the evidence of the dope test) without essentially taking WADA’s decision for them.

I’m confident this is going to run and run, and the consequences in the fight against doping in sport are going to be significant.

National 25-mile Champs - Holsworthy, Devon.

June 7th, 2011

Timing the National 25-mile Championship it so it clashed with the Criterium du Dauphine meant that in, comparison with the National 10, the number of people on the start-sheet called Bradley Wiggins was dramatically reduced. This, in theory at least, improved my odds of getting the win.

It was an unusual championship. Rather than start in a featureless lay-by somewhere, it had a start ramp in the town square, flanked by a slightly bemused looking jazz band. From the start ramp, you went down a hill so steep that it was, in all the respects that matter, BASE jumping. Then you rode up another hill, of about 10%, then down, then up and so on to the turn, and back the way you came to a finish by a farm gateway two miles outside the town.

The odd side-effect of this finish point was that the onlookers in the square – most of whom were a bit unsure what was going on anyway – were treated to the sight of several-hundred bike riders flinging themselves off down the hill, never to be seen again. We could have been being eaten by a giant toad just outside the town.

If I’m honest I wasn’t so sure about the hilly course – personally I liked it, but then I’ve spent quite a lot of my time over the years riding early-season hard-riders’ events and the TT series, all based on lumpy courses. The National 25 is traditionally much closer to the old roots of the sport, the idea of showing off how fast you can go on something that is more or less flat, and perhaps almost 1000ft of climbing was too much. Maybe once every few years it’s OK? I’m really not sure, and opinion at the race seemed to be divided between those who loved it, and those who wished they’d stayed at home.

Certainly I had mixed feelings about the hills at around 18 miles when I had a sudden conviction that, contrary to the way a bike’s front gear-changer has always worked, it would be possible to change chainrings while going at full pelt up a hill without backing off the pressure on the pedals a little. I had quite a few moments to contemplate my own genius while I was standing by the road ham-fistedly putting the chain back on.

About the best that could be said for that bit of stupidity was that I picked a good spot for it. Only about a mile further up the road I got a time check that showed I was still comfortably in the lead. And since I knew from some earlier checks that I was riding faster than anyone else in the race, it was just a case of keeping relaxed and staying in front. It could have been a lot worse.

It was nice to see Matt Botterill getting the silver, after more fourth place finishes than you would believe possible. And my team mate Pete Tadros’s ride for sixth was terrific. He’s probably the most underrated time trial rider I know, and it got us the team prize, along with Dave Pollard.

But the race of the day was clearly that of women’s Champ, Julia Shaw – winning by more than 3 minutes over an hour-long race was just awesome.

National 10-mile Champs

May 23rd, 2011

I’m never really sure quite what to say about a time trial result. Win or lose, the result sheet contains pretty much the whole story. Ruling out mechanicals, accidents and freak weather conditions (which we only accept if certified as such by the Met Office), whatever it says on the sheet is what happened, no more, no less. It is the whole joy of an otherwise dry discipline. TTers are especially fond of making excuses, the more outlandish the better, and it’s because we know that ultimately they don’t count.

What the sheet says is that I got 41 seconds put into me in 10 miles by Brad Wiggins. Which seems like quite a lot to me. Certainly it’s more than I’d have liked, but then again, I’ve never taken a defeat yet that made me wish I’d been beaten by more. But given Brad’s power output for the ride, I should probably be grateful it wasn’t worse. He brought the computer off his bike to the prize-giving for a bit of show-and-tell. I’d never seen a number that big on the ‘average’ display. I was hoping it was a sticker on the screen that would peel off. It wasn’t. It said 476w. Or maybe 478w. I couldn’t see properly because my eyes were filling with tears of jealous rage.

His presence at the National 10 was a bit of a surprise in the first place – he’s done the British TT champs in September a couple of times, but not normally the fixed distance champs in spring. They normally get left to domestic toilers like me. It was a pity, given the presence of a proper star, that the event itself felt a bit flat. The ferociously busy course on the A19 dual carriageway wasn’t exactly spectator friendly (it scared the willies out of some of the riders too), and the lack of a proper HQ was a little frustrating.

It all felt a bit more grassroots that it really needed to. Though to give Brad credit, I think that was what he liked about it. He said it reminded him of being a junior, and I think most of us appreciate anything that makes us feel young again.

Bike racing in the midday sun

October 18th, 2010

The final few days in Delhi were busier than the rest. That’s why I haven’t managed the final blog until the plane home. I’m trying my best to ignore the low-hairlined member of the athletic community in the seat behind who has formed the conviction that the harder she thumps the touch screen entertainment system in the back of my chair, the faster it will work. A month in Delhi seems not to have taught her that nothing in India happens quickly, but it all gets there in the end.

My race, after two weeks of sitting about, was last Wednesday. The air temperature was about 40 degrees. Finding a cool place to put the rollers for a warm up was a challenge. In the end we used the men’s changing room, on the basis it was air conditioned, and hence merely 32 degrees. I’d have used the women’s, which was cooler, except that David Millar and the Scottish delegation had barricaded themselves into it.

The race itself was among the dullest 50 minutes of my life. The sun beat on an empty three-lane highway. There were no spectators after the first few hundred yards, just mile after mile of security fence and soldiers. If you looked up, the road disappeared into a vanishing point just this side of the pollution haze. It seemed best not to look up. Anyway, if you did that, you missed all the entertainment possibilities offered by staring at your handlebars. Next time I’m taking a book.

By ten minutes in, I was hot. By 20 I was hotter, and until then I would have said this wasn’t possible. By 30 minutes I’d formed the paranoid delusion that this ride was just a qualifier, and the finals would be later that afternoon.

But I rode about the right pace, didn’t do anything stupid, kept my temper when someone parked their official car on the racing line at the turn, and oh-so-slowly the time dribbled past. There isn’t much else to say about it. The course was so featureless that my personal 10km-to-go landmark was a funny smell that had been there all week, presumably from a sewer.

I was leading when I finished, but as I suppose I should have expected, I ended up in fourth place, for two Commonwealths in a row. Not good enough for a medal, but good enough to get taken to dope control for the second time in fifteen hours. I was last to leave the venue. When I got out of dope control there were 200 men waiting to dismantle everything and take it away so they could open the road again for the rush hour. I might not have got a medal, but I can be justly proud that my recalcitrant bladder caused one of the biggest traffic jams in Delhi’s history.

(Incidentally, the two Welsh athletes across the aisle of the plane have just decided that what they’re looking forward to most when they get home is, ‘a proper curry, not the shit we had to eat in India.’)

I did finally get out of the Village the night after my race. I might well write a postscript to the Village blog about it sometime in the next few days, because several people have asked me about it. But it doesn’t really feel like it belongs with everything else.

I think that’s because outside the wire, the Commonwealth Games hadn’t taken over everyday Delhi the way it did Manchester or Melbourne. There were a few posters, but that was almost it. There were no souvenir shops, no ticket shops. There were no crowds of tourists who’d come specially, and there were no athletes around. There was no need for the usual uniformed volunteers to look after visitors. There was little sense of a community that felt involved. The Games were almost invisible.

I think it’s fair to say that there are three Games happening at once. There is the event that you see on television – which is the most important product because it’s for the largest number of people. There is the Games that the athletes experience – and bear in mind we number only a few thousand. And there are the Games that the city lives through.

The TV Games were probably very good. I don’t know, because I couldn’t really watch, even if I could get BBC2 on my TV.

The Games experience the athletes had was mixed. The volunteers in the Village were quite exceptionally friendly and enthusiastic, even if dealing with the Village bureaucracy was sometimes wearing. Most of the accommodation was all right, even if it was a bit on the grubby side. (You could ruin a pair of white socks beyond any hope of cleaning on one stocking-footed walk to the bathroom.) One of our balconies didn’t have a wall round it, but they’d replaced it with a bit of cardboard and a small sign saying ‘low wall’, so as long as you didn’t get lost on the way to the bathroom in the night, I guess it was OK.

But the security was overwhelming. Other athlete villages I’ve lived in have involved airport-style security. But this was up a whole level. I’ve had less physically intimate relationships with my underpants that I had with several of the security friskers. The metal detectors were so sensitive that if you got through without a siren going off, you knew you’d forgotten your iron supplement that morning. And if the amount of weaponry on display had been wheeled past the Politbureau as the stood atop Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square, they’d have thought it was a little over the top.

I can only assume that it was all necessary. Even a normal Metro trip in Delhi, or a visit to a decent hotel, involves an x-ray machine. And, apart from one incident where I was marched back to the residential zone at gunpoint, it was all done reasonably courteously.

But the sense of confinement started to spill over at the end. I was in the main dining hall one night at about half eleven, and it had the pent-up atmosphere of a rough pub just before the punches start flying. I had a hasty bowl of Sugar Puffs, and got out before the boxers and the wrestlers threw years of technique training to the winds and started hitting each other over the head with chairs. I’ve never experienced that at another Games. In Manchester and Melbourne, a lot of people didn’t really want to go home. In Delhi, most of the people I spoke to (admittedly mainly UK or Australia-based) weren’t going to be terribly sorry to leave.

I can’t presume to speak for the locals about their Games. All we really saw of them – apart from the volunteers – was their being herded about by the military to ease our passage about the city on our busses. One morning we passed a bus-stop where the dozen people in the queue had been required to crouch down behind the seats in the shelter while two soldiers with guns watched over them. I can’t imagine their feelings towards us were especially warm.

Out on the courses for the time trial and the road race, spectating for non-VIPs was limited to small, brutal-looking pens with high fences. They were in direct sun, and you weren’t permitted to take any water into them for fear you’d throw it at the riders. The riders were sufficiently far away that anyone who could it them with a water bottle should have been down at the stadium chucking stuff for the glory of India. Events like cycling and the marathon are normally the ones that anyone can see for free, and which ought to make the whole city feel involved. Not in Delhi. Watching a bike race in Delhi looked potentially lethal.

Even less would I want to speculate on the cost of the Games. Given some of the poverty on Delhi’s streets, you wonder a bit. But I’m not going to join the patronising westerners declaring that India should have spent its money on something else. It’s a democracy. It’s up to them.

Despite the reservations, you have to say the Games were a success. Down at the closing ceremony, the interminable speeches were triumphant. Indian athletes had won unprecedented numbers of medals, and best of all, no one had been shot.

Escape chutes and starting ramps

October 11th, 2010

I haven’t updated for a day or two – I’d say things have been busy, but they haven’t. I’ve done a lot of sitting about, a lot of drinking coffee slowly, and a lot of quietly becoming unhinged at the sheer tedium of our incarceration. There is a three-foot diameter hole the wall of the dining hall that leads into an air conditioning exhaust. When I got to breakfast yesterday, someone had stuck a bit of paper above the hole saying ‘escape chute.’ We’re all going nuts in here.

I had a bad morning. I took the bus out to the time trial course – an hour’s trip – and when I got there found I’d packed two right-hand shoes in my bag. So I had to sit there for three hours till the bus back. Then I still had to go training, so I thought I’d go and try to have a ride on the access road to the Village, which I thought would be OK since it is still inside the security cordon. No. It wasn’t even nearly OK. I was marched back into the Village at gunpoint by a soldier who had raised not-seeing-the-funny-side-of-things to an art form. The Welsh lads tried the same thing, and got arrested.

Out at the course, I did at least have a look around. The facilities look good at the start-finish (which we hadn’t seen until today). Big changing tents, decent pits, power points, lots of good work. Some things haven’t gone so well. The start-ramp was being finished. In Manchester 2002, the ramp was about five feet high, and dropped at 45 degrees. You went down it so fast your ears popped. I certainly know someone who kept their brakes on the whole way down. Delhi’s, in contrast, bears much similarity to a shoebox with a bit of wood leaning on it. It has a roof, to shelter you from the sun. Unfortunately, when they grabbed a passing cyclist this morning for a trial run, they discovered that the roof is about neck-height. Still, they’ve coped with bigger snags around here than that.

The grandstand is small. But, and I think that describing the weirdness of this is probably beyond me, they’ve supplemented it with about a hundred sofas. Honestly, sofas. They’re laid out alongside the course, all in a matching Indian ethnic fabric, and look like they’ve been borrowed from ‘Stereotypical Indian Restaurant Furniture R Us’. I’m guessing you can hire yourself a sofa for the day, and watch the TT while reclining like an oriental potentate, eating grapes and being fanned by, let’s say, the Jamaican women’s 4×400m relay team.

Kind of makes me sorry I’ll have to ride a bike. The race is on Wednesday, starting at something like 9am BST, in case anyone is interested.

Village people

October 7th, 2010

Apparently, despite the security measures, one of the athletes got out of the Village last night, and made it as far as a bar in downtown Delhi, where he contracted food poisoning from some bar snacks. As the nutritionists warned us before we came out here, food poisoning is a dish best served tepid, and thus was justice served upon him. May his animal wails of agony be a warning to the rest of us.

Since I can’t tell you about Delhi, for fear of being run to ground by the army on my research trip, I thought I’d tell you about the Village.

It’s a newly-built development of apartments, in 32 tower blocks. (Melbourne was the same kind of game – it was a newly-built housing estate that looked as if the set of Neighbours had come to a field by Melbourne zoo and pupped.) The apartments are spartan, but that’s fine, because it means that we, the celebrated athletes, can leave trials of kit everywhere, and, in the case of the cyclists, perform major acts of bike maintenance in the front room. There are just a few chairs, and, of course, the television celebrated in my first Delhi blog. We’ve got boxes on the wall that look just like air conditioners, which make a humming noise that uses Pavlovian psychology to make you feel cooler.

Outside, in the kind of heat you suffer when there is no humming, there are crowds of people in brightly coloured sports kit. The atmosphere is hard to pin down – it’s certainly not a holiday camp. Most of the people are young, and they’re all hurrying somewhere. No one hangs about. It’s most like a slightly hippy corporate vibe – perhaps like Google or like Ben and Jerry’s used to be.

You can try to guess what sport everyone does from their physique, which is hard, or from what they’re carrying, which is easy. Normally what they’re carrying is in a case of some sort – gymnasts carry hoops in terrific cases that are essentially a slightly fatter hoop. Shooters have gun cases. Pole vaulters have poles, and are forever getting foxed by revolving doors.

(There was a vaulter at the airport who said they’d had real trouble getting from Gatwick to Heathrow the previous day because you can’t take a pole on the bus. They have to travel with their own roof rack and rent a car wherever they go, and Gatwick car rental was out of cars. Apparently taxi drivers don’t take kindly to your announcing you’re putting a roof rack on their cab.)

Cyclists are easy to identify, since they ride everywhere round the Village, just so everyone knows that they’re the athletes with their own transport. Sometimes they cycle from the apartment to the lift.

Beside the apartment development is the dining hall – the one that was imported grill, wok and toaster from Melbourne – and the International Zone. Yet more temporary buildings, including a memorabilia shop so you can take everyone at home a cheap yet still over-priced mascot, a bank so you can change money for the trip to downtown Delhi you’re not allowed to make, a hairdresser’s, a beauty salon, and an internet café. The café is full of male athletes looking at porn with a degree of sheepishness that diminishes as the days pass and they gradually realise that that’s all any of them are doing.

Which brings us to the great mystery of sex. I have read dozens of newspaper articles down the years about sex in athletes’ villages. About how much of it there is, about how good everyone is at it, and about the thousands and thousands of free condoms they give out. I’ve never seen any evidence of any of this. I’m sure it must go on, and certainly there are some people around in the Village who look like they would be jolly competent at it. But I’ve never so much as heard a headboard banging in the night. No one has ever offered me one of the 150,000 condoms. And I don’t think all the guys in the café are pursuing their absolute number-one first choice of recreation.

In other news – Northern Ireland won its first cycling medal in 20 years this afternoon, when Phillip, Dave, Sean, and Martyn beat India in the team pursuit bronze medal ride. All the more impressive considering they hadn’t planned to do the event till two days ago, and hadn’t trained together. They did offer me a place on the team, but I couldn’t be torn away from the internet café for long enough.

A world of our own

October 6th, 2010

I’m not really looking forward to coming home from Delhi next week. It’s partly because I’m going to be dumped from 33-degree temperatures into winter. It’s partly because I haven’t yet figured out how I’m getting 80kg of personal luggage home from the airport. But it’s mainly because if anyone asks what I thought of Delhi, I’m not really going to have an answer. I’m not in Delhi, I’m in Commonwealth Games land.

I’ve mentioned the security presence before, so I don’t want to go on about it, but it is the overwhelming characteristic of these Games. I’m sure it’s necessary, and it’s done with every courtesy, but it’s made the games even more insular than ever. I tried to ride my bike out of the village last night, and at every gate I was turned back by the army. I don’t think they really like you to walk out either. We’ve only seen the airport, the Village, the interior of our tinted-window, air conditioned, army-escorted busses, and the heavily-guarded venues. If they had enough Indian volunteers to man the village, and a big mural of Delhi for us to look at while the busses to drive past, we could be anywhere.

This impression is only enhanced by the catering, which is the same as it was in Melbourne four years ago. The same company has set up the same huge marquee, with the same layout and the same food. I think perhaps the chairs are different. There is a toaster with a dent on the top that always burned my toast four years ago. I didn’t half look clever on the first morning with I predicted that it would do the same thing here.

The only change in the food is that there is, obviously, no beef. For the most part it’s replaced with buffalo. Which leads to some slightly curious combinations, like ‘Hungarian Buffalo Stew’, the Hungarian authenticity of which I doubt. I’m also certain that exactly the same dish is available from a different counter (each counter serves a different regional cuisine) as ‘buffalo curry’.

But the food is good, it’s available in infinite quantities, and it’s served up with considerable cheer. I was in a queue behind a skinny lad who asked for chicken. The helper put some chicken on a plate. ‘More,’ said the skinny lad. And ‘more… more… keep going… more… look, I had to lose 9kg to make weight, I haven’t eaten for a week, and two hours ago I got the crap beaten out of me in the first round [he was a boxer, or at least I hope he was a boxer], so keep bloody going with the chicken, because eating is all I have left.’

The server gave him two plates of chicken, and brought him over a third when he was halfway through the second.

Meanwhile, in the Velodrome, the Northern Irish are through to the bronze medal ride-off in the team pursuit. Which isn’t bad, considering that we didn’t have a pursuit team when we got here. We lashed one together at the request of the organisers (and the Kiwis, for some reason) when only three teams originally signed up. The Welsh did the same thing, but got disqualified for false-starting. The guys are racing India tomorrow night, and unless something goes pear-shaped, I’d say they’re looking pretty good for the medal.