Wednesday 22 May 2019

Dion Fanning: Corruption of the system does more damage than drug cheats

Dion Fanning

It's been a bad week for cycling. Lance Armstrong's downfall came on top of further sickening revelations about former semi-professional Jimmy Savile, who once completed the Tour of Britain. Possibly even drug-free.

Bradley Wiggins saw a parallel between the two scandals, comparing the way cycling was being dissected to the examination of the BBC and its failure to spot that Savile was hiding in plain sight.

In this parallel, Wiggins, unfortunately, would be Piers Morgan. Morgan wrote recently that he had never met Savile, only for an article to be produced in which he told of a conversation with him and which ended with the words, "I've always loved Jimmy Savile".

Wiggins once spoke highly of Armstrong but stated recently it was a "myth" that he had ever raced against him when in fact they had competed in the 2009 Tour de France.

In his Sunday Independent article last weekend and again during his interview on Off the Ball, Paul Kimmage made the point that Lance Armstrong didn't become a cyclist with the intention of doping. In fact, like so many, he had discovered that if he wanted to win, he had little alternative. And Armstrong wanted to win.

Once he made up his mind that he had to dope to win, he pursued his ambition to the gates of hell, discovering that his sociopathic personality was suited to making the lives of those who got in his way pretty miserable.

Yet, unlike Savile, it may be possible to see Armstrong as a victim of the system, not just a man who exploited it. When Kimmage wrote Rough Ride, it was an attack on this system that compelled cyclists to dope. The cyclists who worked the system were the ones who turned on Kimmage. Lance was a systems man.

Armstrong is less deserving of sympathy than, say Ye Shiwen, who was questioned during the summer for being a 16-year-old swimmer with an improvement in time that seemed implausible. Ye is easily viewed as a victim, just as the East Germans who were pulled into the system from an early age can be viewed as victims.

But nobody wants to rail against a system -- they want bad guys, heroes and villains, they want Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson. They want a cartoon. If we can't have heroes and villains, we want our villains to repent. The greatness of Tyler Hamilton's book The Secret Race is its absence of what Conrad Black would call "bourgeois priggishness". Hamilton is given the choice, and in the context of what he could achieve in his career, doping became a demonstration of how badly he wanted to succeed. Doping was a demonstration of his intent. He was, as Armstrong saw it, serious and not a "fucking choad".

Every sport has its code which rarely corresponds to how it is viewed by the public. Every industry is a sausage factory, where its workings rarely stand up to forensic scrutiny.

What was clear from many cyclists last week is that they believe the world doesn't understand what is required to compete at the highest level. This is a universal truth among sportspeople but in cycling the truth just highlighted the corruption of the system.

The cyclists who never doped are easy to admire but there isn't a cyclist who wasn't faced with a choice over doping. Imagine living in a world in which every citizen at some point had to consider bribing a public official if they wanted to feed their family. We may decide to bribe or not to bribe but we would know the system was destroying us.

There is a crushing logic to doping, just as there is to bribery and many other things. The world was destroyed by men who preached the logic of the free market until the market reached its logical conclusion and they said, actually, everybody else will pay for this.

Junkies don't start taking heroin because they want their lives to revolve around the next fix, they take it because it makes them feel great. They may have some moral reservations but the feeling great argument usually wins out.

There is a logic to the legalisation of heroin, just as there is a logic to allowing doping. Yet Hamsterdam in The Wire was no place to live, just as sport in which competitors reveal that the key to their victory was the excellent blood transfusion they received on the day of the race would ultimately be a denial of everything sport is supposed to be.

Doping, ultimately, is not about cheating. If it was, then the argument that it should be allowed would be more persuasive because that way you would remove cheating. Doping can be about cheating but in cycling, it was about a lot more. Doping is about corruption, primarily the corruption of the spirit. The system needs to be changed which is why outrage at cyclists in this instance can be dangerous and of little use. Before the system can be changed, those runing the sport, like Pat McQuaid, need to go.

Sky's decision to sack anyone who admits to a doping past will only encourage silence and a witch-hunt.

It suits the system to portray this as a nut acting alone, or a nut acting alone with a network of collaborators or a nut acting alone with a network of collaborators against other nuts acting alone with their own networks of collaborators.

The UCI's ignorance about what was going on is assisted when those within cycling express surprise at the evidence against Armstrong.

Greg LeMond's letter to the UCI indicated that the system itself is close to crumbling. This is where Kimmage came in 20 years ago, taking on the system.

Armstrong enjoyed the benefits of a warped system for a long time. 'Not normal,' he'd say when he analysed the times of another rider he suspected of doping. He was driven to succeed by fear of the enemy within and the enemy without. He hounded Christophe Bassons but he hounded dopers too.

Armstrong, like so many, was driven mad by the relentlessness of his own logic, a logic that persuaded him that he was just doing what he had to in order to succeed in a world full of enemies and sons of bitches. He rode the system but first the system broke him. Now Armstrong could help bring it down.

Greg LeMond said "the problem for sport is not doping but corruption". The downfall of Armstrong is demonstrating one thing. Sport, ultimately, is about truth. But it's the truth that is rarely pure and never ever simple.

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