Is it possible to divorce the man (or woman) from the work? In the arts, does it diminish the work of Amedeo Modigliani, of Phil Spector, of Alfred Hitchcock to know that these men were, shall we say, dysfunctional? What links the creator with their work – specifically with the public’s reception of their work – has long been a subject that has fascinated me and remains one of the Ph.Ds I’ll never write.
There’s a parallel in sport of course – any field of endeavour will throw up idols with feet of clay – but what will the fans, will the sport, will I, accept? The torrent of “wise after the event” pieces on Lance Armstrong has provoked me to consider questions I’d rather avoid.
I loved cycling, really, really loved it. The terrible beauty of the lands to be conquered , the history honoured in words and images, the vast canvases of the sport’s monuments – Grands Tours, Classics and the pursuit of the Rainbow Jersey. And it was not (as I heard claimed earlier this week) peopled by men who had turned their bodies into machines, the better to engine their bikes to the finish line. Cycling, like cricket, could go hours with little of note and then an attack, a section of pavé, a turn of a corner into the face of the Mur de Huy, and ten seconds of lapsed concentration could cost a day’s race, a month’s Tour, a year’s preparation. The mind, and an iron will, counted more than the physical powers of these superhuman sportsmen.
But I knew there was something wrong, something that was of an order of wrongness that placed cycling beyond what I tolerated elsewhere. It wasn’t just the physical impact of the drugs – like fans of many sports, I’d accepted “in competition” tragedies like Tommy Simpson’s horrific demise on the brutal Ventoux and Fabio Casartelli’s accident as part of the game, mourned though The Fallen are) – increasingly, insistently, the mental impact of cycling’s deceitful culture was worrying me. The death of Jose Maria Jimenez shook me and then, just a few weeks later, the appalling fate of my hero for so long, Marco Pantani, cut me to the quick. It was no surprise, a few years later, to read that another hero was gone – mad Frank Vandenbroucke, whose victory in the 1999 edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege was the most sensational in all those years of watching Eurosport in the company of David Duffield and Sean Kelly.
And every July, there was Le Tour, the centrepiece of every summer with its shimmering sunlight, its swaying sunflowers and its shootouts in the mountain stages. My fascination with it had started in about 1984 with Lucho Herrera and the Cafe de Colombia boys attack, attack, attack in the mountains and gone through, undiminished, into the Armstrong era. I read Cycle Sport and Procycling every month and eschewed the highlights programmes – I was hardcore and watched from Depart to Fin, if Eurosport allowed.
And I believed in Lance Armstrong. I’d seen him win the Rainbow Jersey at 21 in appalling conditions in Oslo; I’d read the cancer book; I knew about his weighing of his food, his recces of the key stages; his sole focus on Le Tour to the exclusion of the classics. The question was not, “How could this man win Le Tour?”, it was “How could this man not win Le Tour?” And there was the competitor too: the winner’s ability to see the moment and take it (“The Look”); the fierce pride in performance (the charge back from sprawling on the tarmac to win the stage into Luz Ardiden); and the bike handling (the detour through the field after Beloki’s crash). Sure there were the doubters – journalists with stories to sell, competitors with names to make, and, much harder to ignore, Number Two in my list of cycling heroes, Greg Lemond, who did not believe at all.
But I did believe – even after I gave up my emotional investment in cycling (and my financial investment in the magazine subscriptions) when Tyler Hamilton was caught (another in the list of heroes). It was probably only a couple of years ago that I was able to say out loud that I did not believe in Lance – it just couldn’t be that the only unjuiced cyclist in those youtube clips of a decade or so ago was the man who kept winning could it? No it couldn’t.
Now the truth I was late to accept is admitted, I have more troubling, more general thoughts to consider. I’ve always accepted that sports’ stars are different to the rest of us – on so many parameters, they have to be at the end of the bell curve. Sitting out there on the edge of the distribution is not a recipe for an easygoing personality, for the kind of person who makes a great boss or perfect company over a pint, but when does the understanding stop and the condemnation begin? If I can shrug my shoulders at Lance Armstrong’s drug abuse – though I feel an undiminished anger on behalf of every sportsman or sportswoman robbed of victory by cheats – I can’t shrug away the bullying, the vindictiveness, the hypocrisy. I know that living a lie eats at the soul, but Armstrong’s bullying of journalists, ex-colleagues and competitors was of an order beyond what even that torment can forgive. The apologies and the court cases will follow and truth and reconciliation is the only way to deal with such pain for those involved, but what of me, what of us cheering on the heroes, buying the merchandise, making sport what it is?
Can we accept that Armstrong’s bullying is just part of the game and that his victims should, as the empty phrase has it, “man up”? If we say No, what does that mean for free speech, for media regulation, for the PR that creates and destroys the heroes and villains in turn? I’ve been ridiculed for saying that I would not have wanted Sir Alex Ferguson as manager of Everton as I find his bullying unacceptable – and I would say the same about Jose Mourinho. And what of someone I would have wanted at Everton: Brian Clough? His treatment of Justin Fashanu was monstrous. The list could go on and on and on.
Sport sorts winners from losers and we demand that everything be done in service of victory (most of us, but not all, adding a caveat of “within the rules” and some of us adding “within the spirit of the game too”). The scope for bullies to use the ruthlessness we demand in execution of their skills for ends much more destructive is vast and judgments about such behaviour will always be subjective and tinged with a self-righteousness that grates. Post-Lance, I shall feel more comfortable occupying the high moral ground – and I suspect I shan’t be alone in that. Being a decent loser isn’t such a bad thing after all.