The end of something.

As I write the Lance Armstrong saga is still twirling away; revelation and statement, bombshell and rumour. Today’s news again included collateral – the departure of Bobby Julich from Team Sky, following his confessions over doping in the Armstrong posse of the 70’s. Fascinatingly, despite the sport’s genuinely low profile, this Lancething has become a fully-fledged sporting monster, substantially outgrowing the cycling hinterland. In its black and whiteness, its moral and dope-linked certainties, this is one Recognisably Juicy Story – something for everyone to hang a prejudice or molten opinion upon – even though only six of us in Britain watched Armstrong win all this stuff. In France; whenever he won it. On Channel 4.

Yup, suddenly, we all want to spout polemically on the Tour – you do call it just like ‘the Tour’, right? – something we knew nothing about until wooh, last Wednesday? Because it’s a pearler, this; a truly striking and intoxicating fable where the appalling quality of the breach of honesty at its devilish heart cries out for reaction from honest folks like us. Downing again our Doritos, we rise magnificently to bawl in outrage ’til the thing splatters exponentially across the screens of lives normally blissfully immune from interest in U.S freakin’ Postal. And the guy himself goes from being a cancer-defying god to a hollow cheat and liar. Who goes on lying, woodyabelieveit?!?

Who goes on lying… about drugs. Because it’s presumably just too big a deal to row back from this very biggest of porkies; the one that was SO big he felt (in his kingly arrogance) unimpeachable, unassailable, unapproachably clear of exposure as the blood-doped fraud he was. He who bullied and led; he who made blood transfusion an essential part of his winning process. (Yes, that’s er… blood transfusion – lying in the back of a bus – I picture him in some zonked-out cruciform, arms splayed – with ‘fresh’ blood coursing in like some scarlet, performance-enhancing elixir.) See? It’s beyond mere sporting crime and well, we-ell into symbol. And that’s properly big, right?

The fact that Armstrong is an American Icon does surely add some spice to all this. Witness the outbreak of world class wallowing amongst lefty Europeans as another absurd empire falls. Rarely, surely, has there been a clearer or better confirmation in the eyes of the liberal Old World of the essential unchristian hypocrisy of that same Great Nation – Lance’s – the one that gave us U.S. Postal. It’s right up there with Evangelical Frauds and Preacher Paedophiles; it has the quintessential grossness, the lies, the money, the betrayal. We’re loving it, aren’t we?

Armstrong won the Tour 7 times and yes he did fight off cancer. (I’m hoping nobody discovers some link between EPO and surviving cancer, by the way; that could just get too weird.) But given the serial extravagances here, surely, for this All-American Sinner, there must be an appropriately massive revenge of the masses. Some distant Asphixiatingly Brutal Punishment Planet we could send him to? Where they wear bright orange overalls, maybe? Imagine please the amount of labo(u)r – the amount of galactic rock – Lance Armstrong might un-zip, at peak physical condition in a 12 hour sesh. He could supply the Alpe D’huez Freeway Project with enough stone to cobble a way back to Paris, (ma’an).

That may or may not be funny. Certainly most of this story isn’t. Not in terms of what it says about the sport of cycling (we hope to god just) at that time and about fairness and honesty generally in the competitive situation. People, it seems, cheat in order to win? (Who knew?) The implications for cycling in terms of the likes of Rabo-bank pulling out as major sponsors and likely further and broader allegations arising, are seriously serious. As a slightly more than part-time supporter of the sport, I have gone fulsomely on record to argue for greater and wider acknowledgement of the magnificent levels of courage and athleticism and generosity found in the peloton. And – in defence of cycling, perhaps – I want to re-state some of this. Sadly, with certain qualifications.

If cyclists are clean then they are amongst the finest of athletes because;

  • It takes rare courage and belief to race in a pro road race. Injury through crashes or wear and tear of weary limbs are likely. You descend mountains at around 60 miles an hour, in a racing group – which is phenomenally scary. Every fibre must be brilliantly, twitchily engaged for every moment.
  • Stages in the Tour de France (for example) last typically for about 6 or 7 hours, or 120-odd kilometres. Even when these are not mountain stages, there are climbs; it hurts. Levels of fitness are astonishing. They ride 20 stages – 2,500 miles.
  • Despite the intensity of the physical effort, top riders must be race-aware/tactically cute/ready to cover ‘attacks’. So there is little or no rest. In one of the truly great, possibly unique facets of the sport, ‘domestiques’ dedicate themselves day after day to enable success for a team leader they know has the best chance for an overall win. They ‘chase down’ opponents whilst their leader preserves energy; they ‘carry him’ through agonising climbs or periods of tiredness. And the ‘domestiques’ rarely win – not themselves. It’s about sacrifice; how wonderful is that?

The Olympics – and specifically the sensational and ongoing dominance of GB Cycling in the velodrome – gave us a further, more widely-appreciated reminder of the appeal of haring around on wheels. In fact one of the most anticipated events at London 2012, for die-hard fans and more recent converts was the Olympic Road Race, where a certain Manxman (Cavendish – one of the greatest currently-active champions in any sport, in my view) was challenging for gold. That didn’t work out. But cycling went big anyway, for that short period. Offering the hope that perhaps the most significant Olympic legacy may yet be the health/environmental benefit accruing from people getting off their arses… and onto their bikes. How wonderful is that?

‘Midst the genuinely shocking revelations from former team members/masseuse/(any-time-now?) Lance Groupie, the story of the (actual) action itself is subsumed. Racing action that included the most monumental effort from both Armstrong and his team. Sprinting and climbing; thousands of miles. Effort we now dismiss, if we can, from our memories. As we try to dismiss the inevitable daft questions; could he/they have won without doping? How good was he, really, without that stuff? And what about Indurain?

If we wanted to trawl back through (and beyond?) the major records we might be able to gather some picture of how good Armstrong was before; how good
he honestly might have been.
But that’s irrelevant now.

Today Bobby Julich- who coughed – became a former coach to the mighty Sky Professional Road Racing Team. Because as a team they have sworn to have no truck with cheating. And aeons ago, alongside and quite possibly for his team-mate Lance Armstrong, Julich cheated by doping. Whether this is the end of his career in the sport, who knows? But it is the end of something.

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The Campaign for Gentlemanly Conduct; part two.

Previously I have made heartfelt but no doubt ludicrous generalisations about TeamGBsters being better people than say… Rio Ferdinand, the Olympics having shown up the inadequacies of our football stars through the inconsiderate revelation of dee-lightful rowing chap after unassumingly lush cyclistess. Rio – a deliberately relatively inoffensive choice, as it ‘appens – in interview, would stand no chance against… well… against any of them. Imagine the poor fellah pitched into some comparison with (specimen-of-all-specimens?) Katherine Grainger. Nuff sed.

I hope to move on from this unlicensed judgementalism by getting further into the issue of, the contrasts re respect in sport. This is something even I slightly fear threatens to align me with a currently mercifully subterranean (to-the-point-of-imaginary, actually) arch-conservative group fronted by that former decathlete now eminent flopster/middle distance scapegoat Michael Gove but such are the dangers of the hunt for the righteous . (On that political orientation thing I will just confirm that my own lunacy tends to spring awkwardly from the softish left rather than the anal right.) However because  footballers do seem to have no respect and this does I think draw more flak than almost any other complaint against yer Rooney and yer Terry, stuff must surely be said.  About respect.  But… respect for what?

Broadly, the Olympians – our Olympians, for let’s be honest, we didn’t see too much of the rest of the world’s – were universally received as beacons of treble-fabulous good; partly, surely, because of the obvious contrast with footballers? Wherever you looked there was modesty and rounded good-humour of the sort last seen in football circa 1953 when some bloke called Matthews skipped round a bewildered First Division whilst supping mild, knitting nightcaps and discovering the potato; all to general hat-throwing acclaim.

Now the accuracy or validity of any emotion against shallowness, arrogance and disturbing unworldliness amongst footballers may be open to debate.  It is nevertheless certain that large chunks of us – even those who consider ourselves fans – feel they behave, in the widely used vernacular, like wankers. This is often due to their petulance or lack of respect for officials. We understand that players have in the moment some urgent need to express disappointment or to otherwise ‘react’. It does not follow that this reaction might need to be so essentially cheap.

In rugby circles the drama-queendom and simulation in soccer means coaches tear into footballers for precisely these shameful or cynical episodes – acting or disrespectful and inflammatory celebrations being particularly offensive to the rugby community. Coaches in the 15-man game do routinely warn their own players against such dishonour, such poncification – I know, in coaching rugby myself, I have done this.

So it really is true that footballers are held in contempt by many in the rugby community. How many of them appreciate this, I wonder? Or feel the moral depth of that contempt? Would such awareness make any difference? Unknowable – so let’s get back to rules; respect.

First I should probably mention that for those unfamiliar with footielaw (and footie does have Laws not Rules, interestingly or not) Law 12 now includes what was previously recognised as the Ungentlemanly Conduct Law. Now if I understand it correctly kindof subsumed into Fouls and Misconduct, this throwback to the age of honour and imperial plunder is still in use for discretionary expression by refs and, more commonly, though with little discretion, in the bullshitfest that is general discussion and punditry around the game. I think it’s chronically under-used potential reiner-in of modern ills.

For surely this anachronistic, slightly pompous-sounding Ungentlemanly Conduct thing has rather a lot going for it – or could have – alongside its weirdly inappropriate non-PCness, which we need to recognise.

For one thing it unashamedly implies a kind of moral compass; suggesting in its dangerously dated manner that some woolly goodness, some reflection even may be beneficial to the game. (A note here that perhaps you don’t need to be a misogynist traditionalist necessarily to applaud transgenerational sporting values.) Secondly, its non-specificity lends itself to flexibility and discretion. Thirdly, football needs something to latch onto, some cause to cling to or gather around and it may be that post a wonderfully enervating/invigorating and sporting Olympics this notion of good or ‘gentlemanly’ conduct might just help football re-brand. It certainly might help those trying to keep the thing in order.

So let’s just contemplate again, specifically, this thing football has with referees, with its ‘bastards in black’ and on this occasion I promise to jink Steve Coppell-style outside considerations of race before arcing in my devastating cross/theory thing.

We can get a grip on them – referees – there’s something really grabbable in both physical and conceptual terms about their starchy, often geeky authoritarianism drawing them in to our malevolent clutches. They are an almost reassuringly resented presence in football –uniquely so? – there being an extraordinary hostile confluence of opinion upon their role, their nature even.  (But that’s weird, right?)

Led with extravagant charmlessness by the top players and the managers, we the footie public at large – watching either semi-naked on some frosted terrace or listening in to Allan Green whilst our Porsches scoot silently through leafy Mayfair – love to abuse them. We love to abuse them psychotically in fact, with the fullness of our hearts for… for being the ref.

There is a thesis to be written on this alone, this murderous international antipathy to that bloke or woman in the middle; whatever they do; however, pretty much, they do it.
Later, dwarlings, later…

The quality of the abuse of referees in football is peculiarly obscene and its occurrence peculiarly prevalent. It never ends. The players are obviously and enormously culpable in this, as are the managers and there seems to be no significant will from any direction to curb this wholly degrading aspect of the game.

Let me be clear on this. In 2012 swearing is barely an issue – or at least not an issue of the import of racism or homophobia for example. But swearing aggressively and repeatedly and abusively at a referee or an official is. It’s truly an offence in the wider sense of the word and I find it extraordinary that it still goes relatively unpunished season after season.

Very few players are ever actually sent off or banned following such outbursts, yet we see them in gruesome, fulsome high definition in almost every match as players react appallingly to unfavourable decisions. And I know players are under more pressure in the modern game – truly, they are – the exposure being massively greater, the rewards being financially greater. This is no way, however, excuses a disgracefully poor level of discipline amongst players and managers in this regard.

Pity the referees – support the referees I say – with video playback and meaningful assistance from an empowered fourth official and beyond. Currently the man in the middle is utterly undermined by dishonesty and malcontent all around. He or she is there, the Martians have concluded, to collect our madnesses; like some spitbowl for the twisted soul of humanity. And they are in black.

With both a million years of dodgy symbolism and John Terry railed up against them, what chance do referees have?

Well how about if they had a panel of respected footiefolks in their corner? And what if that panel reviewed obviously controversial or mishandled incidents with a view to issuing correctives in the form of warnings or bans to those guilty of (say?) bringing the game into disrepute?

If this group of Goodies riding in to save footie from itself really were concerned to aggressively promote sportsmanship as well as good decision-making, might it even be appropriate for them to use the moniker The Campaign for Gentlemanly Conduct?  Thereby staking a claim on that apparently unnaproachably difficult playing surface… The Higher Ground.

People… there’s more to come on this.