Soon after Lance Armstrong announced that he was stepping down as chairman of the cancer foundation that bears his name and Nike finally announced it had severed ties with the Texan, the Twitter masses took to their scrolling feeds, exhorting their opinions on the two massive announcements in Armstrong’s world. Most commenters were applauding the decision, and interestingly enough, many began to blame Nike for the hero worship of Armstrong and the corporation’s part in what many are tagging “the greatest sporting fraud in history.”
From 1999 to just a mere month ago, Armstrong (and his minions) threatened, bullied, sued, intimidated, and bought off the media, his sponsors, his teammates, and allegedly members of national federations and the UCI to ensure their silence. Armstrong was the toast of Hollywood. He was the darling of the political set. It was a fairy tale story.
Last night during an appearance on Bicycle Radio about the Armstrong experience, one of the co-hosts asked my thoughts on why no one outside of a small group of journalists was willing to chase the story. I launched into my usual thoughts about intimidation and deep pockets, but I neglected to touch on one big aspect of the Armstrong narrative.
Trek, SRAM, Honey Stinger, Nike, USA Cycling, and the rest saw an opportunity to profit from the Armstrong story. These are the same entities that are beginning to make their exodus away from the fallen superstar, as it isn’t in their financial interests to continue. That’s just good business right? I mean, now that he’s been exposed as a fraud, they should be heading to the exits. But shouldn’t they also come under scrutiny for being willing participants in the fraud? As the months go by, I’m sure we’ll have more stories about employees from all those organisations being intimately involved in hiding what occurred, as David Walsh himself pointed out on Twitter earlier on Wednesday.
There is an inherent danger in the way that professional cycling is structured. The heavy reliance on team sponsorship dollars has created this pot of unfortunate soup. Sponsors can hold teams hostage based upon performance, which can trigger the use of shortcuts. Or, powerful teams can turn the tables on sponsors in a similar fashion, as Armstrong did with some of his smaller sponsors, including forcing an Oakley employee to lie under oath, a fact that has been exposed in this whole sordid affair.
Race organisers are complicit in this, as they all – aside from RCS – have refused to engage in a dialogue to create a mutually-beneficial solution for the teams, the riders, and the organisers. Sole reliance on sponsor dollars for all three is the slippery slope leading to a repeat of “Armstrong Armageddon.”
But can this possibly repeat itself? Could we have another situation where a confluence of circumstances creates another “anointed one?” Guess what? It’s already happened.
Team Sky, with the assistance of their sponsors and a brigade of backroom backers (including Geert Leinders), created the second coming of Armstrong. The British media have glommed onto the Wiggins story like piranhas feasting on an unsuspecting Bond villain. So have the sponsors. So have the fans. Pressure for him to win a SPOTY. Pressure for him to be knighted. Pressure to start some sort of foundation. Pressure to win more Tours, Giros, and Vueltas. He even has his own line of clothing, for heaven’s sake.
What’s interesting is that he’s only won one Tour. That’s it. We didn’t see this sort of Messianic treatment of Cadel Evans in Australia. Sure the Aussie was popular, but was he exalted? Did Evans refer to people as c*nts? Did Evans blacklist media outlet after media outlet? No. And guess what? It’s not Wiggins’ fault. Not entirely. He’s fallen under the spell of Murdoch. Of Brailsford. Of Adidas. Of Fred Perry. Of the British entertainment industry.
In fact, as an experiment I posted a dubious photo of Brad Wiggins, screengrabbed during an interview with Ned Boulting on July 21st, 2012. The interview took place after the punishing individual time trial, which Wiggins won by a country mile. We had an expert examine the photo, who stated it’s the median cubital vein that’s been tapped based on the position of the plaster.
Why is the plaster there?
The UCI passed a no needles policy in May of 2011 which stated the following (quote courtesy of cyclingnews.com article by Stephen Farrand):
The UCI Regulations now prohibit injections that have the aim of artificially improving performance or helping recovery. It means riders can no longer inject vitamins, sugars, enzymes, amino acids or antioxidants to aid recovery. It is hoped the ban will contribute to the eradication of doping by greatly reducing the use of injections in cycling.
Herein lies the problem. No one asked why Wiggins had a plaster, and the interesting fact is that Boulting, who conducted the interview, didn’t find the plaster on Wiggins arm as strange. According to sources within the Tour de France, there wasn’t any blood drawn for anti-doping purposes on that day. So why did Wiggins have a plaster on his arm? It couldn’t have been for medicinal purposes, as a Team Sky doctor supported and asserted the no needles policy as “fantastic” during an interview with Lionel Birnie that appeared in the August 2011 edition of Cyclesport Magazine.
Does this mean Team Sky are doping? Certainly not. But it certainly raises the question, why was something injected or drawn out of Wiggins? Based upon the many responses I received on Twitter accusing me of hating Team Sky, having an agenda, and accusing them of doping, all the while vociferously defending Wiggins and Team Sky, I’ve concluded that the general public still has a long way to go. We’ve gone from a culture of “Trust, but verify” to “Ignore until it becomes a problem for us.”
The British media and British companies have queued up around the corner to get their pound of Wiggins flesh to benefit their own public relations and marketing aims. The vast majority were only concerned with “first British winner of the Tour de France” and not the means it took to achieve said result.
Until the UCI takes a pro-active role, until the athletes themselves make a formal push, until the team owners and sponsors take responsibility to change the entire system, we are going to continue hoisting up cycling messiahs to crucify when we find them fallible and human. I hope the example of Brad Wiggins isn’t the next chapter of our sordid and sorry history.
The tough questions need to be asked of national federations and the UCI, who have helped perpetuate our current trauma with the assistance of the laundry list of corporations looking to make a profit on the backs of those who organise and compete in the sport. Stronger governance of the existing rules and constitutions of all organisations is required.
What are we prepared to do?
Epilogue, 20 October 2012
A Team Sky official took umbrage with the piece, and chose to focus on the picture of the plaster used to illustrate the commentary. As we’ve seen by the comments below, everyone has become more concerned about the doping issue rather than philosophical questions I raised.
Apparently this piece created enough of a stir that Team Sky published via Twitter a picture of the doping control notification, which we are also including here. While it’s that great Team Sky is choosing to be transparent in this specific situation, the manner in which they have chosen to accomplish verification just demonstrates why I still struggle with how the team conducts its business. That has been reinforced by their misguided policy creation after the publication of this opinion piece of “no dopers allowed,” and “confess and you’re fired.”
Other journalists have come out attacking the piece in support of Team Sky. Again, this is reminiscent of the Armstrong times.
The fact that Team Sky has chosen to taken to attack on Twitter, rather than taking the high road, also reinforces my feelings from the piece.