Sunday 26 March 2017

Vincent Hogan: Dopers taking away all our goosebump moments

Lance Armstrong is still the focus of media attention
Lance Armstrong is still the focus of media attention
Still the focus of media attention, disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong on a charity cycle for cancer in France last week (REUTERS/Fred Lancelot)
Still the focus of media attention, disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong on a charity cycle for cancer in France last week (REUTERS/Fred Lancelot)
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

A friend of mine says that his most intoxicating memory from a long career in sports journalism is having the privilege of a seat at the most rotten race ever run.

He was in Seoul's Olympic Stadium when Ben Johnson blazed 100 metres in 9.79 seconds. To this day, he says the recollection all but leaves him light-headed. Just seeing a man run faster than any human had ever done before seemed to him a perfect articulation of what it was that drew him to sport as a child.

That six of the eight contestants of that Olympic final subsequently fell under a doping cloud doesn't really compromise what he took from that day in South Korea. Because, at the starter's pistol, nothing corrupted his view of what was ready to unfold. He simply felt lucky, privileged, giddy.

What followed doesn't so much taint his memory of the experience as make him pine for the simplicity of what he felt that day. The sense of taking epic sporting achievement at face value. Of trusting the naked eye.

Maybe the saddest thing about Chris Froome's predicament this week is that, if he's innocent, we will never know it. How can he ever prove himself clean? He can't. We are so far past a point of interpreting negative drug tests as evidence of honesty that sport seems almost close to acknowledging defeat in the very process of policing.

A great raft of French media has appointed itself judge, jury and hangman on Froome, lampooning him with cartoons and fanning sufficient scepticism about his performances for some roadside loon to toss urine in the cyclist's face.

And that's pretty much a point of Armageddon to reach in what is essentially a guessing game.

From an Irish viewpoint, the narrative has acquired a peculiarly intimate feel with two of the most celebrated Lance Armstrong whistle-blowers now starkly distanced in their interpretation of what Froome and his team represent. Once upon a time, David Walsh and Paul Kimmage seemed closer than brothers in the fight against doping.

Today they look towards a Team Sky motor-home and see entirely different things.

David believes in Froome and that belief takes him to a hostile place now. For a man who put everything he had on the line in an heroic pursuit of Armstrong, his interview on Newstalk this week bore an almost interrogatory tone.

Professional

I've known Walsh all of my professional life, we joined the old Irish Press Group within nine months of one another between 1979 and '80.

Some of us are still just treading water in this game, but David took off like a shooting star. His pursuit of Armstrong has been turned into a movie and it's fair to say you've reached a different audience when you're getting name-checked by Oprah Winfrey.

Yet it all but sounded as if he was in the dock this week when pushed to defend his faith in the rope-thin man about to win a second Tour.

Kimmage believes that Team Sky have questions to answer and that, in the absence of absolute transparency, they are responsible for the hostility now circling Froome. This week he likened Walsh's (and formerly his) employers to "Pravda" in their coverage of this story and the essential hopelessness of the distance now opening between two old friends seemed, if anything, to articulate some kind of ultimate desperation in the fight against doping.

This year's Tour has been exercising the minds of physiologists desperate to break down Froome's performances into numbers (watts). But what could those numbers, ultimately, tell us? Nothing definitive. Nothing categorical beyond depositing small asterisks of suspicion.

So Froome might be one of the greatest athletes of the modern age or he could be just another well-spoken, charming swindle. Chances are we will never know.

And that's the ultimate tragedy of what the dopers have achieved. They've denied us the right to trust anything we see now, persuading us that goosebump moments in sport are, most probably, crooked.

Froome can never be proved innocent so will always (at best) be deemed too good to be true.

And, with even the whistle-blowers at war, doping has another headstone.

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