27 January 2013

Lance's Offenses: Neither The First Nor The Last

Tonight I saw the 60 Minutes segment on Lance Armstrong.  I don't think I learned anything new from it.  Then again, I didn't expect to.

I'm not going to debate about the genuineness of Lance's confession or whether he doped in the last two Tours he wrote.  It's all getting tiresome, really.  Call me a cynic, but I don't think anyone--the investigators, Lance's teammates or Lance himself--is telling everything he knows.  And anytime Lance or anyone else is accused of doping, someone will say, "Well, everybody was doing it."  Be that as it may, the affair is a mess.

All right, I'll say one more thing before I get to what prompted me to write this post.  Lance and certain other people, of course, have an interest in his being cleared of the accusations and lifting the ban on his competing.  On the other hand, if Lance was indeed doping and did, in fact, make his teammates take the same drugs he was taking and threatened anyone who wouldn't, or who spoke of it, then there were also people who had a vested interest in denying it, or simply looking the other way.  Yes, I'm talking about UCI officials, among other people.  They were probably looking at Lance as a ticket to the American market.

Anyway, what I now find far more interesting than the question of whether Lance doped or not is the degree to which he controlled the Tour, and much of the racing scene.  One rider--Tyler Hamilton, I believe--said, in essence, that what Lance wanted, Lance got.  He was well-connected and, according to some riders, if you didn't go along with him, you could be essentially run out of the sport.

It got me to thinking about the ways in which a few athletes manage to control a competition, and not only with their athletic domination.  It's long been suspected in cycling and other sports that a few top-flight competitors conspire with each other to control the outcome of contests.  

It's not hard to imagine in a sport that's as individualistic as cycling.  In stage races like the Tour, teams compete, to be sure, but most people watch the races to see the performance of individual riders.  (Probably the only team sport about which the same thing could be said is basketball:  There were a lot more fans of Michael Jordan than the Chicago Bulls, for example.)  Track events and time trials usually pit individual riders against each other, so it's easy to think that there are conspiracies.  

Velodrome d'Hiver

In fact, collusion was very commonly attributed to the races at the old Velodrome d'Hiver in Paris.  Of them, journalist Pierre Chaney wrote:

There was a lot of talk about the relative honesty of the results, and journalists sometimes asked themselves what importance they ought to place on victories in these six-day races. The best of the field combined between themselves, it was known, to fight against other teams and to get their own hands on the biggest prizes, which they then shared between them. This coalition, cruelly nicknamed the Blue Train [after a luxury rail service patronised by the rich] imposed its rule and sometimes even the times of the race, the length of the rest periods. The little teams fought back on certain days but, generally, the law belonged to the cracks, better equipped physically and often better organised.

Chaney was writing about races during the 1920's. One could be forgiven for thinking that there is indeed "nothing new under the sun" and that whatever Lance's offenses were, they were neither the first nor the last, neither the beginning nor the end.

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