Monday 18 February 2019

Paul Kimmage: Why it's never easy to tell it like it is

Rory McIlroy will not represent Ireland in the Olympics
Rory McIlroy will not represent Ireland in the Olympics
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

For years he was aimless, a lost soul in life, always searching through the emptiness yet never finding the right path. How could he move forward when all signs kept pointing to his past? So, a few years ago, Alexi Grewal rounded up a scrapbook from his victory at the 1984 Olympic Games road race, and the rest of the memorabilia from his cycling career, and threw them in the trash. “I lived through that once and I needed to move on,” Grewal said. “It was a weight.” — Scott Reid, The Orange County Register, August 2009

I was sifting through some dust-covered boxes of photos and memorabilia in my mother’s house recently when I happened upon the blazer in a cupboard: 

‘Paul Costelloe’.

Moygashel linen.

Paul Kimmage with his mother Angela and his Ireland blazer from the 1984 Olympic Games. Photo: David Conachy.
Paul Kimmage with his mother Angela and his Ireland blazer from the 1984 Olympic Games. Photo: David Conachy.

LA ’84.

That she has kept it after all these years says something, I suppose, but what it says I’m not sure.

If you’ve been listening to the radio or reading the papers lately and observed the muck being thrown at Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry for withdrawing from the Olympics, it would be easy to conclude that — unlike the golfers — I was a proud Olympian who had answered the nation’s call and put my country first.

But that would be tosh.

I was, indeed, proud to race for my country on that steaming hot afternoon in Los Angeles, and prouder still a year later to finish fifth at the World Championships, but the truth, the unspeakable truth, is that it had nothing to do with Olympian spirit, and little to do with Ireland.

I was doing it for myself.

I had just turned 22 that summer and had spent the months prior to the Games trying to secure a professional contract with a team in Paris. The Olympics were just a stepping stone at the time, a box to be ticked en route to the ultimate boyhood dream of winning the Tour de France.

How do we remember Miguel Indurain? As a five-time winner of the Tour, or a Spaniard beaten by four Irishmen at the XXIII Olympiad?

And it’s the same, I suspect, for others who raced that day — Steve Bauer, Dag-Otto Lauritzen, Davis Phinney, Ron Kiefel, Raul Alcala, Martin Earley, Fabio Parra, Atle Kvalsvoll, Per Pedersen, Phillippe Bouvatier, Neil Martin, Jean Paul van Poppel, Carlo Bomans, Andreas Kappes, Heinz Imboden, Nico Verhoeven — and then turned professional. Their Olympic blazers are gathering dust.

But what if they had won?

In January 1987, three years after he’d become the first (and only) American to win the Olympic road race, I shared a room with Alexi Grewal at a training camp in France. He was earning 35 times my salary at our team, RMO, but was still trading on the flair and potential he had shown in Los Angeles.

On our first night together, about an hour before we joined the rest of the team for dinner, he took a small portable gas stove from his bag and cooked a large plate of spaghetti in the room. On our first training ride, he rode alone, 100 metres behind the group, because he felt it served him better.

He believed in new-fangled concepts like yoga and stretching and I remember entering the room and finding him standing on his head, or lying on a special piece of wood to align his vertebrae. In a sport that has always been a magnet for screwballs and obsessives, Alexi was in a league of his own.

His career since Los Angeles had been disappointing. He had raced his first season as a pro in 1985 with the Panasonic team in the Netherlands but had fallen out with the hierarchy for refusing to take performance-enhancing injections.

Alexi had no objection to doping — he had used steroids and other performance-enhancers and tested positive a week before the Games (he escaped on a technicality) — but, like everything in his life, it had to be on his terms.   

“It’s hard to regret it because I think regret can only be based on if it bothered your conscience at the time,” he told the journalist Scott Reid in 2009.

“And so, since it didn’t really bother my conscience at the time, I don’t feel like I regret it. In a sense, it doesn’t bother my conscience now.”

In 1986, he joined a new team, 7-Eleven, and started his first Tour de France, but abandoned it on the 17th stage and was thrown off the team for spitting at a CBS cameraman on a motorbike who had come too close. RMO in ’87 was the last-chance saloon for him and it was no real surprise when, six months after joining the team, he quit and returned to America.

He wasn’t made for France, or the traditional racing values that prevailed there, and could be an obnoxious asshole at times. But I couldn’t help but like him. Nothing intimidated Alexi Grewal, and nobody spoke more unspeakable truth.

There was a story told once about a stage he had won at the Coors Classic in Colorado, when he happened upon a journalist he held in low regard.  “Congratulations, man,” the journalist chirped. “That was a really great ride.”

“Yeah? What the fuck would you know about it?” Alexi replied. 

Unspeakable truth is a rare commodity in sport, and in life, these days. We all see things from our own point of view and tailor our words accordingly.

“What do you think of your boss?”

“I think he’s a genius and a pleasure to work for.”

“No, no, no. What do you really think?”

“What! Ehh, you’re joking, right?”

So you have to smile at some of the bullets being fired at the golfers on Twitter.

The boxer, Katie Taylor: “Another one bites the dust. I wonder what excuse the golfers would of made if there was no virus.”

Really Katie? You’ve never made an excuse?

The journalist, David Walsh: “17,000 overseas athletes have competed in test events in Rio. Not one positive for Zika. As an Irishman, I’m unimpressed by McIlroy and Lowry.”

Honestly Dave? The Olympics mean that much to you?

And how many times have we heard this week: “Why don’t the golfers just tell it like it is?”

Well, let’s see now. Maybe because they’ve got sponsors to please and schedules to fulfil, and wives they might like to have normal, healthy kids with, and goals — little things like Majors — they actually dreamed about as kids. Maybe they don’t enjoy flags being thrust upon them and divisive discussions about colours and anthems.

Maybe they’ve a pain in their face with guys like Pat Hickey, the president of the Olympic Council of Ireland, hustling their sponsors for money and publicly turning the screw: “The rules of the Olympics are very clear,” Hickey told the Irish Independent in April. “You must wear the team gear as selected by the NOC (National Olympic Council). It’s the same for every country. If you want to participate in the Olympics, you have to adhere to the rules. The situation is he (McIlroy) must wear a New Balance cap, shirt, top, trousers and accessories, such as the belt and sunglasses.”

Maybe they read something like that and think: ‘Fuck you Hickey, and the horse you rode in on! My sponsors have been taking care of me for years.’ Maybe they don’t trust WADA to patrol the sport. Maybe they are sickened by the antics of the IOC.

Maybe they feel for the citizens of Brazil and the hardships they’ll endure to pay for the circus. Maybe they should stop listening to the doctors who say the Games should be postponed. Maybe golf is not an Olympic sport. Maybe next time. Maybe never. Maybe they should round on their critics: “Yeah? What the fuck would you know about it?”

Or maybe it’s just easier to blame the mosquito.

Alexi Grewal did not have it easy when he stepped away from cycling. His Olympic gold medal was stolen. He drifted from job to job and struggled to keep a roof over his head. When he was interviewed by Reid in 2009, the only memento of his Olympic win was a small photograph that hung on the bedroom of his (then) 11-year-old son, Elijah.

Reid asked him if he didn’t at least wish he could share his gold medal with his son. They were watching Elijah from the edge of a football field. A gentle breeze was blowing and the boy was lining up a pass. Alexi shook his head. “He doesn’t need it to see it (the medal),” he replied. “He needs to see me.”

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