Archive for the ‘sport’ Category

Chapeaus

Tuesday, 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

Friday, 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

Friday, 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.

National 25-mile Champs - Holsworthy, Devon.

Tuesday, 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.

Village people

Thursday, 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.

More moaning. And daffodils.

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

I don’t really want this blog to become just a regular whinge. It may already be too late. It’s just that if you’re a bike rider you do sometimes feel a little unloved. My local village newsletter flopped through the letterbox yesterday morning.

This month, among the local news (there is a pothole on Church Street – be careful) and the local churches’ propaganda, is a complaint about inconsiderate cyclists using the footpaths that run beside the busy A-road through the village. Which, I’m bound to say, would feel less like persecution if the footpaths weren’t designated and signed as shared-used paths.

It would feel even further from persecution if the main road itself was not the most dangerous place to ride a bike I’ve ever seen. I’ve mentioned this before, and often, but if you lived here you too would find that you talk of little else. I’ve ridden round Hyde Park Corner on a folding bike at night with less concern for my longevity that I have ever managed on the village High Street. Just in case the speeding lorries were going to miss you, the council has installed traffic islands every hundred yards or so to narrow the road and make damn sure they don’t. I’ve had more near misses and arguments in the 800 yards to the paper-shop than I’ve had in the rest of the county put together.

It’s the same everywhere else – you can ride on the shared-use paths and get shouted at to get onto the road, or you can ride on the road and get shouted at to get onto the path. I usually go for the road, because most of the time I reckon it’s safer. That and the fact that the shared-use paths are often rutted, strewn with glass, and sometimes so narrow that there isn’t space to pass a pedestrian.

None of this is really news to anyone. What worries me is I let myself get far too annoyed by these things. It’s similar when I’m out on my bike – someone chucking something at me from a passing car, even if it’s as innocuous as a plastic bottle – will irritate me for the next hour, when more laid back friends are capable of ignoring it altogether.

I know that I’m not alone in this – from my Cycling Weekly column, I know that nothing generates reader emails like writing about road safety, or the hostility of other road users. It’s tempting to write about things like that every week, simply because it’s always nice to know that someone is reading. But it doesn’t half start to get you down after a while.

So. More thoughts about spring, birdies, daffodils, bunny rabbits, and the sheer joy of the open air.

Until the next time I’m belted up the arse by a bottle, obviously. Probably tomorrow afternoon.

The pleasures of winter.

Friday, February 19th, 2010

For the last week, I’ve been watching the Winter Olympics like it’s my job. I’ve been doing my job as if it’s the washing up. And the washing up, well, just take a guess. I’m simply entranced by the various means devised of sliding down a hill, while flapping your arms to keep your balance. If I knew why I’m so fascinated, I suspect I’d know a lot more about myself.

It may just be that, like a cat, I simply like brightly coloured objects moving about on a plainly coloured background – see below for an embarrassingly large number of entries celebrating golf. Or it may be – golf again – that the less I know about a sport, the more I like it, just like my late Great Aunt Florence, who spent her declining years watching any form of televised competition she could find, from five-nations rugby to Bullseye, without ever really having the faintest idea what was going on.

Or it may just be the simplicity of the whole thing. Mostly you only have to watch one brightly coloured object at a time, while watching for the split times. And for the most part, it’s reasonably obvious whether or not things are going well. Man in Lycra flashes past the camera in a low tuck. (‘He’s going for it!’ says the informed commentator. Even I can see that.) Or, perhaps, man in Lycra enters the shot at high speed, upside down four feet off the ground and proceeds to drive himself into the snow like a nail, leaving only his skis showing. (“Oooh, that hasn’t gone at all the way he wanted,’ says the commentator, as some Canadians extract the victim, to hopefully dust him down and send him on his way.)

I even like the fact that things like half-pipe have made a virtue out of manoeuvres that look to me like a crash right up to the point where the victim’s snowboard comes bottom centre at just the right moment for them to ski away.

I know all this is based on ignorance, indeed I know I’m saying just the kind of stuff that sometimes grates when an outsider writes it about my own sport – though I like to think I’m fairly tolerant up to the point where someone suggests killing us.

But maybe the best thing about it isn’t the ignorance, it’s the innocence. When a snowboarder falls out of the sky over the half pipe in the style of a skydiver who’s parachute has failed, gets up, smiles for the camera, and slides away humming to themselves, I can convince myself that they’re driven more by the pleasure of the thing than anything else. It may well be so, or at least, more so that for a lot of other sports, but I’m almost certainly wrong in most of the time. For me to be right, they’d also have to be not really competitively driven, and that’s not how you get selected for the Olympics. I can make myself believe it, though, and that appeals immensely.

Remember last summer?

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

Ok, here’s a question to which I’m sure I should know the answer, but don’t. Let me take you back to the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony last summer. Lin Miaoke, you will doubtless remember, was the nine-year-old girl whose singing apparently accompanied the arrival of the Chinese flag in the Bird’s Nest Stadium.

You will doubtless also remember that she was miming – the song was actually sung by seven-year-old Yang Peiyi, who won a competition to take part in the ceremony but who was judged by a member of the Politburo to be too ugly to be seen representing China. (Incidentally, Yang Peiyi had already replaced another girl who was apparently even less visually suited to the job.)

There was something of an outcry, and petitions to let Yang Peiyi sing at the closing ceremony. All jolly splendid. But here is the question: Just why is it more important to be fair to ‘ugly’ kids than to tone-deaf ones? Maybe Lin Miaoke was just as wounded that her voice wasn’t acceptable?

I know the traditional answer is that how well you sing is down to years of hard work and dedication, it’s something you can improve, so you have a choice about it. Your appearance is just a given.

This ‘choice’ logic is the same that’s used to determine what groups attract protection from discrimination. (Just while we’re in the area, I may as well point out that this is why cyclists never have much joy in arguing that some of the abuse we get from newspaper columnists is equivalent to racism. You can’t stop being black, but you can stop being a cyclist.)

But with seven-year-olds? Most kids I ever remember being good at singing just were – it wasn’t something they’d worked at, not at that age.

The real answer I suppose would to have been to let Yang Peiyi mime to the singing of Lin Miaoke at the closing ceremony. I wonder why no one suggested that.

Underdogs and overdogs and nice green grass.

Monday, June 15th, 2009

The British love an underdog. Apparently. I’m not sure that the miscellaneous indigenous peoples who were wiped out to make space for the British Empire would have seen it that way, but hey ho, never mind.

 I mention this because Wimbledon approaches, when all of a sudden people with no real interest in any other sport pop out of the woodwork to spend hours a day flipping between simultaneous tennis coverage on BBCs 1 and 2. In reality it’s not just that they don’t like sport, they don’t even like tennis (or they’d watch the French Open too). What they like is looking at nice green grass, and the Duchess of Kent’s hat. Ah! How relaxing.

 For the most part, they support anyone other than the player who’s expected to win, unless it was Tim Henman, in which case they supported his opponent so that they could continue to make jokes about Tim being a loser.

 I’ve never quite got this. It’s very egalitarian, I suppose, and I guess that by supporting the guy who’s probably going to lose you can feel that you’re doing your bit to prolong the match and increase the entertainment value. But it’s still a strange way to go about it.

 I’m a fan of the best player winning. It’s the same in other sports – golf, for example. Or even, to the extent that I care, football. (Well, who I support in football is the result of a more complicated algorithm, mainly revolving around how much dodgy cash clubs have access to.) I like the players with the talent, and those who’ve put in the work, to win.

 I know this means I have a dull, predictable outlook on life. Although it’s a view I share with the French – who supported Roger Federer at the French Open, even when he was against a French player. In France, this isn’t being dull and predictable; it’s being knowledgeable about the game, or respecting the best player. I think I like that way of doing it. 

Marathon experience

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

I’m watching the London Marathon over the top of my laptop screen. We’re three hours in now, so it’s all about men in dog suits, women on stilts, and Gordon Ramsey. The winners are back in the hotel, no doubt leafing through a Mercedes-Benz catalogue.

I did the London Marathon, years ago. I entered the ballot on a whim after watching the previous year’s race, and a few months later, to my horror, got a letter telling me I’d been ‘lucky’. Clearly a rather marginal use of the word.

I knew nothing at all about distance running. I looked up the world record for the race, and decided that three hours would be a nice comfortable target. It was, in truth, wildly optimistic.

I bought a new pair of trainers, and got busy. Looking back at it now, the training was pretty basic. I just went on a few runs. About the only clever thing I did was a longer run once a week – but even then, only up to about 15 miles.

I more or less made the three hours – I missed by only a couple of minutes.  But boy did I suffer for it.  I exploded somewhere around Tower Bridge on the way back from Docklands. The last five miles lasted for decades. I remember passing an 800m to go sign, where a woman shouted ‘nearly there!’ to me. I stopped to point out that I still had 800 sodding meters to go. I swore I’d never do another marathon. And I have every intention of sticking to this.

The only thing that ever made me feel better about my marathon experience was a friend, a much better runner, who on one occasion passed mile 23 in 2.18 – heading for a comfortable sub 2.40. At this point he hit the wall to end all walls.  He covered the remaining distance in a dazed 45 minutes – with runners going more than twice as fast as he was strobing past on both sides.

I bring all this pain up for purposes of handy comparison. I went to see Bob Dylan at the O2 Arena last night.  The marathon was more fun. It wasn’t nearly as good as this review makes it sound.  And the review doesn’t make it sound good.