18 April 2018

A Thriller Or A Juicer?

My uncle, who was as much a card-carrying liberal on social issues as anyone I've known (Having spent much of my life involved in the arts and the academic world, that's saying something!) nonetheless refused to watch any movie in which Jane Fonda, a.k.a. "Hanoi Jane", appeared.  

The question of whether you can appreciate the work of anyone accomplished in his or her field--whether in the arts, sports, science or any other area of endeavor--knowing that the person did something immoral, unjust or simply out of line with your values, is certainly not new.  I know otherwise well-read people who will not touch Ezra Pound's Cantos because he was an anti-Semitic Fascist and refuse to have any truck with movies, TV shows, books or other creations from folks who are--or whom they believe to be--immoral or politically incorrect.

Likewise, there are erstwhile fans who gave up on bike racing because of the doping scandals.  This phenomenon was, I believe, most pronounced in the wake of Lance Armstrong's fall from grace.  With all due respect to Greg LeMond, Armstrong was probably the first modern "American hero" of cycling. At least, he was the reason why many Americans paid attention to the Tour de France, if not to bike racing as a whole.  But even Europeans admired and respected him, however grudgingly, if for no other reason than his "comeback" story.

It would be one thing if current and former fans directed their ire solely at him.  Since he was stripped of his titles, however, it seems that some have given up on the sport.  Many more, though, look at every victory, and every current and rising star, through a lens tinted with suspicion.  It's hard to blame them, though the problem of doping pervaded cycling--and sports generally--long before Lance seemed to spring from his death bed to the podium.

So, when Alberto Contador announced his retirement from racing a few months ago, fewer tears were shed than when Bernard Hinault, Eddy Mercx, Jacques Anquetil, Fausto Coppi or even Miguel Indurain called it quits.  That, even though, among those riders, Hinault is the only one besides Contador to have won all three Grand Tours --Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana-- more than once. (Mercx and Anquetil each won the Vuelta once, while neither Coppi nor Indurain ever won it.) Even though nearly anyone who has followed the sport will say that he was one of the most talented riders of his generation, they are not as sorry to see him go as they were when previous winners of the maillot jaune and maglia rosa left the scene.

Contador in the 2005 Tour Down Under

Contador, though, wasn't just a cyclist who won races.  He pedaled with gusto, and raced with panache.  Probably the last cyclist who won with such style was Marco Pantani, winner of the 1998 Tour and Giro.  His "juicing" spiraled into abuse of other drugs, including cocaine, and led to his death five and a half years later. The way Contador rode was often described as a "dance", and he recently admitted that in his final Vuelta --which he won--he would "attack exactly when I felt like it" instead of "calculating everything".  You might say he had his reasons:  After all, he was riding his final race, and it was in his home country.

He was indeed thrilling to watch.  Should we remember him for that--or for the titles he lost and the ban he incurred from his drug use?   


  1. On my French visits there is regularly bike racing on TV, something of a national passion. One thing I noticed through the American cheats years of glory the French adamantly proclaimed him a cheat.

  2. Coline--Yes, I recall how the French (and other European) press were declaring Lance a doper. At first, I thought it was envy, but as time went on, the evidence became clearer.

  3. I read Cycle of Lies, which gives a damning account of Armstrong's deception, and his efforts to destroy those who blew the whistle on him. I have no sympathy for cheaters. Sooner or later, the lies catch up to the liars. I believe there is a parallel in the current political situation.

  4. I recall what Jacques Anquitil once said in an interview when asked if he used stimulants of some sort: "You don't suppose that we do the Tour d'France on Vichy Water, I hope". In earlier times it was known by those in the sport that the top riders used substances of various descriptions. But the substances were regarded as dangerous and the idea was that only experts could use them, and then in moderation. The difference in recent times is that the substances were wide spread and their use organised. I think I would tend to agree that the conspiracies, secrecy and bullying of our times is qualitativly different from what went on 50 years ago.

    But we will never be able to turn the clock back. Armstrong has poisoned the sport, and things are different now.

    A confession: I am soon heading out on one of my road bikes and I intend to get a bit wired on a certain brand of German sports chocolate with almonds.

  5. MT--In the political climate, I can only hope there is ultimately justice. I can only hope the same is true for sports.

    Leo--One might argue that doping goes back to the original Olympics in ancient Greece. Then, athletes experimented with various herbal concoctions to enhance their performance. They also gorged themselves on meat, which most ancient Greeks ate rarely, if at all. Some even ate raw bull testicles. Now, whether they actually helped anyone's performance is, shall we say, open to debate.

    When I ride, chocolate is my drug of choice. So are almonds, pistachios and fruits.