‘How we all love extreme cases and apocalypses, fires, drownings, stranglings, and the rest of it. The bigger our mild, basically ethical, safe middle classes grow the more radical excitement is in demand.
‘Mild or moderate truthfulness or accuracy seems to have no pull at all.’ – Saul Bellow, Herzog 1964.
Was Bellow a cycling fan? A baseball fan? An athletics fan?
He might well have been, taking into account the quote above and its accuracy in portraying, whether intentionally or not, the thirst for the incredible that helped fuel the world of sports since the 90s, the desire for wonder that played no small part in putting srynges into the hands of athletes to be plunged into backsides to make them faster, stronger, better.
How different are we, in essence, to the Romans who bayed for blood in the Coliseum, who drove the emperors to ever greater displays of blood lust?
Not much. Not much at all.
We have our niceties, our modernity. We are refined.
We tut-tut about the horrors of war and greed and injustice and whatever else we need to do to assuage ourselves of the guilt we carry with us for living relatively well, for feeling lucky, for not being shot at and for having children that are not covered in flies as they waste away before our eyes and yet we too play our part in creating monsters, ghouls and freaks, just as the Romans did.
We help create these folk who compromise their very humanity to bring us thrills, spills and the occasional bellyache.
Yes they get rich and become famous, but we demand their existence. Want them. Need them.
We use them to remind us, paradoxically, of what it is to be human.
Through their incredible achievements we are delivered, like fallen angels carried to the heavens once again, to a recognition of the limitless potential that dwells in the human spirit.
Yet we are addicts in our desires, and like all addicts we have lost the sense of perspective. And, as fundamentalists, in a very real sense, we are blind to the realities before our eyes.
I say paradoxically because these seemingly wonderful achievements of the human spirit that leave us gasping for breath, wide-eyed as children, that we stand witness to in the ball parks, the great stadia and on the high peaks in France and Spain and over the cobbles of Holland and Belgium, have mostly – and that is a subjective term, but, you must admit, more true than not in recent years – been fuelled by chemicals.
By the non-human.
We have to accept our role in all of this. And when we’ve done that, we need to make decisions that will, in the face of future revelations, allow us to make sound choices.
To know where we stand.
Take the case of Stuart O’Grady. Hugely respected, one could even say beloved by cycling fans, the Australian recently was exposed as testing positive retroactively for EPO.
The reaction to this news by some has been baffling. Many seem ready and willing to accept O’Grady’s claim that he only took EPO during the two-week period before the 1998 Tour de France.
Why, exactly? He’s just been outed as a cheat and a liar – and yes I am pulling no punches here just in case you hadn’t noticed – and yet we’re supposed to believe this claim?
Did he win Paris-Roubaix clean? If you say ‘yes’, how exactly do you know? Because he never tested positive? Talk to Lance about that one – he’ll give you 500 reasons to know the tests don’t work.
‘Well they all did it then.’
‘You can’t judge him until you walk a mile in his shoes.’
‘He was brave to admit it.’
Let’s extrapolate on these. Where does this logic take us?
Without mentioning a specific case, let’s consider ethnic cleansing, a horror that, in many forms, has infected human history and continues today. Is that acceptable, because ‘they all did it’?
Too extreme? Yes. But that is where that logic – ‘Well they all did it’ – ultimately goes.
But wait, I have to be him to judge him – really? Isn’t that the ultimate get-out–of-jail-free card ever?
‘You don’t know what it was like!’
No, I don’t because I’m not him, and yet I believe I would not have made that choice. Does that mean I think I am special? Holy?
No. Why? Because there were thousands, possibly tens of thousands and maybe even hundreds of thousands of men and women around the world who were young through this period of chemical re-engineering and blood doping that continues today that said ‘no’.
People that put aside their dreams of becoming professional athletes and chose different careers, or those who struggled to make a living at their sport, but clean.
One of these is Kirk Willett, the latest in a growing line of former athletes who has come forward to state that he rode clean and that he made a very definite choice to do so.
Willett, a former pro who rode through the mid-90s, speaking to CyclingNews recently said:
“There was no confusion that doping was something that you were supposed to avoid. It was against the rules, unethical. We all understood that. It was very clear,” he said.
“I can’t speak for the young up-and-coming European riders, what their experience was, but I know for the North Americans, and the US in particular, there was no misunderstanding.
“EPO was becoming super prevalent and basically making it a whole other world. But we all knew that, and that’s kind of where people stepped off the train or decided to go that route because they couldn’t bear the idea of investing all those years just to get to that dead end.
“It was difficult for me to see and hear about how it [EPO] can transform you. But at the same time, what are you going to get in the end? Are you going to buy a better house, a car?
“What is the real price you’re going to pay if you were someone who really valued being true and whatnot? So there is a price there.
“I’m sure there were plenty of guys who really had to swallow hard to make the choice to do it, but I’m sure it got easier after that.”
It was a choice that O’Grady made. He crossed a line. And if we reserve one reaction for Lance Armstrong, for Danilo di Luca or for Alejandro Valverde, for Levi Leipheimer, we must then be consistent.
The argument that O’Grady is different to Armstrong in that he did not bully or coerce others to tow his line is invalid.
Firstly, who knows what O’Grady really did? And what difference does it really make?
All we do know is that he, like those mentioned and like all others who took banned substances to gain a competitive advantage, cheated.
I would be surprised if O’Grady was revealed to be a terrible man. I suppose he is not. But in this instance let us be clear – all that he achieved is now sullied.
All of it.
‘He was brave to admit it.’
No he wasnt. He admitted what he was busted for and only after he was busted. No courage in that.
And what of us? Are we to continue as ‘Bellow’s people’?
That, like the decisions made by Armstrong and O’Grady and indeed Willett, boils down to one thing: a choice.