a myth exposed

crankpunk was a boy in love with sport from the first day i kicked a ball. a lifelong love of football (of the English variety) began there and then and still endures, and though its place on top of the pedestal might have been replaced by cycling, i still love the unity of thought and movement required by a football team to score a goal. in that respect it’s a more socialist sport than cycling – or it was til the mega-bucks came into the sport and created the current generation of spoilt playboys that fall over at the merest brush of a shoulder. yet there’s no doubt that you can’t win a football game alone at any level, whereas you can win a race alone.

cycling attracts individualists who, if they become successful, then have to bend themselves to fit a team – and even then it’s rare to find a truly unified bike team. of course, it gets easier when everyone is earning big money but the reality is that very, very few of us are. just about everyone is looking for a step up the ladder, constantly. the old saying every man for himself is nowhere in professional team sport more true than in cycling. i remember one short stint in a team that was so divided that it actually culminated in physical violence. riders on the same team were plotting how to make another lose his high place on the GC, and at one point the designated leader even tried (albeit a little half-heatedly – i’m a lot bigger than him) to knock me off my bike during a stage.

it got so bad that i actually considered quitting racing at this level, so unhappy was the experience. i thought that perhaps all ‘top’ teams were the same (this was one of the best teams in Asia). later though i recounted all this to an old pro and he said (after he’d stopped laughing, which took some time) that i’d somehow managed to cram in similar experiences that he’d encountered over a 20-year period into just six months. lucky old crankpunk…

for me though sport was always supposed to be Chariots of Fire stuff, all about amateurs toiling away to become world champions and to smash world records. i always admired the Rugby Union players who, up until 1995, incredibly, earned no money from their sport, no matter how high the level they played. it’s changed now and i am sure the quality of play has risen and that the players themselves are pleased with the change, but there was something irrevocably romantic about a Wales v England match when you had 50,000 fans cheering on these legends of the game, men who were policemen, barristers, doctors, teachers and the like. they were us, and we could, perhaps if we believed enough, have been them.

like the athletes that chased the 4 minute mile as portrayed in Chariots of Fire, those rugby matches were played, generally speaking*, in the spirit of the game and with what looks now to be an outdated sense of gentlemanness. sure, rules were bent, eyes were gouged by fingers and backs scraped by boot studs on occasion, but they all had a pint of warm stout or four after the game and went back to their jobs on a Monday with the cheers of the crowds ringing on in their cauliflower ears.

*i say ‘generally’ speaking because every once in while things got really dirty, perhaps nowhere more famously than in 1974 when the Lions Rugby team (made up of the best players from England, Ireland, Scotland & Wales) went on tour in South Africa. here’s a video clip of  a documentary made of that legendary tour, well worth a watch…

my naive little bubble though was permanently popped by a certain Canadian fella known as Ben Johnson, during the ’88 Olympics. i remember staying up very late to watch the 100m final and going crazy when he smashed the existing world record, then waking up to switch on the TV one morning not long after to be greeted by a grave looking newscaster who told me and the rest of Britain that big bad Ben was a dopepunk. i couldn’t give much of a toss for Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy nor God, for that matter – but this one? this one really hurt (and it was all compounded by the fact that it meant Carl Lewis ‘won’, a man so sanctimonious he made my teeth hurt).

many things were changing for me in ’88. i was 16, soon to be leaving the world of boys to enter the one of men, and i was quietly unsettled at the prospect. always a slow starter, i was more at ease around my bike than around girls (some things never change). the prospect of finding a job loomed, and i had no idea what i wanted to do, apart from to become a professional cyclist, but that seemed more like a dream than a concrete plan. amidst all this the last thing i needed was for the world of sport to be exposed as being a playground for cheats and dopers. sure there were cheaters before, people on amphetamines and coke, but here you had a thoroughly modern drug, one that seemed to turn an athlete bionic. this was a steroid, its name even sounded robotic, and it could give even the puniest specimen bulging muscles. like the soon-to-be ubiquitous computer, this was something that changed the whole system.

Johnson and Lewis
Johnson and Lewis

to many athletes it must have seemed like manna from heaven. for others it was more akin to a plague of locust. it felt more like the end of everything than a new dawn. but that’s what it was, ugly though it may have been. just as sports coverage was becoming truly global and the cash flooded in, so too the drugs upped their game, promising more speed, harder hits, more spectacular victories. it was a marriage of the devil and his sister and looking back, that era, on the cusp of the 90s and just a little beyond, when EPO began to tear through our beloved sport, stands now to exemplify more than perhaps any other time in the history of sport just how connected sport and the culture of a given era truly are. sport does not, as i learnt in ’88, exist in a bubble removed from the wider society.

in the case of cycling, Verbruggen arrived. he had television ready to pay more than ever before for the rights to cover races and his dreams of a star system within the sport coincided perfectly with the arrival of EPO. spectacular feats, blazened across television sets around the world and a celebrity roster of riders, with Armstrong as the dominant cherry on the gateau, must have had him smiling himself to sleep at night. just a shame that others couldn’t sleep as well, kept awake by the conundrum of whether to dope or not. others slept all too well, with their blood thickening and stopping their hearts as they slumbered, as happened to 18 young cyclists in the early 90s, with EPO suspected as the cause in every case.

just recently, the FDJ rider Sandy Casar asked “Could I have been a champion or not?” even he seemed to be bereft of an answer. “You can’t know what what would have happened in races under other circumstances” he said. “When a team is doped it can control or block a race; pull back a breakaway. Who knows, maybe sometimes I benefited from their work without knowing it.

“In fact, everything was distorted,” he continued. “Doping was so terrible that we don’t know who was good, and who was not.”

Casar is best known as the guy who got knocked off his bike on Stage 18 of the 2007 Tour de France (a stage he actually won). if we accept the inference that he never doped though, would he have been better known for more stage wins? a top 3 in a Grand Tour? who knows – we’ll just never know. i raced against Casar on two occasions, and on each i remember seeing him before a stage and thinking, well, nothing. then a real ‘star’ rode past and i was awed. that star had tested positive before yet still i felt that aura that had developed around him. and yet perhaps Casar was the better rider. certainly, if he really did never dope, he was the one who should have had my immediate respect. he and the other non-dopers were really fighting in the Coliseum with plastic swords and cardboard shields against opponents with superior weapons. their careers were shadows of what they could have been, in so many cases. wrong place, wrong time i guess, but what a bitch.

ever hopeful despite his experiences, Casar says that he really feels that the current peloton is cleaner than before, and i think he is right. let’s hope it stays that way, and that the advent of gene manipulation (you know it’s coming) doesn’t destroy what we love about sport for ever. let’s hope too, that kids growing up now can start to believe again. we owe them that, even though it might be impossible to pay up.

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