Tuesday, 7 August 2012

In Defence of British Cycling

The US Anti-Doping Agency’s decision to charge seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong with using performance-enhancing drugs the day before this year’s Tour de France began was as pertinent as it was sardonic. Although never having been conclusively caught doping – despite being one of the most, if not the most, tested athletes in history – there has always been a cloud over Armstrong’s ultra-successful career, particularly in France. Armstrong remains innocent until proven guilty, but any exceptional performance in the sport today leads to questions as to the ‘cleanliness’ of the cyclist in question: accusations that Bradley Wiggins, current leader of the Tour, is now only too aware.

The French media, and a number of outspoken journalists from other countries, particularly the Irishman Paul Kimmage, who’s award winning book Rough Ride lifted the lid on the systematic use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) simply to finish elite professional cycle races, openly accused Armstrong of doping. Unlike Kimmage, who had his own experience of drug use as a professional to refer to, many who made such accusations, without definitive evidence, were at least prepared to put their names to such claims. Today, as many celebrities in other realms of the public arena are aware, such accusations may be made anonymously via the ‘Twittersphere’. 

Wiggins responded this week to accusations on Twitter that it was impossible to win the Tour without taking PEDs with a deliciously British: "I'd say they are just fucking wankers." But Wiggins was not finished, and said before storming out of the press conference: "I can't be dealing with people like that, it justifies their own bone idleness. Rather than getting off their arses and doing something with their lives it's easier for them to sit underneath a pseudonym on Twitter and write that sort of shit..."

One of Britain’s previous yellow jersey holders, Chris Boardman, was one of many to jump to Wiggins defence. Speaking on ITV4 after the time trial on Monday, in which Wiggins extended his lead to 1m 53sec over the Australian Cadel Evans, Boardman said: “The journalist wasn’t going to take any responsibility for that question, and if he wanted to poke Bradley, Bradley was going to poke him right back. ... It was an emotional response, and frankly that’s what people want to see. They want to see real, not what’s laid out and written down by the press department.”

Emotional responses to doping have been Wiggins forte, and, like Paula Radcliffe’s outspoken stance in athletics, scathing. Wiggins’ disappointment at being ‘withdrawn’ from the Tour in 2007, after a Cofidis teammate was caught doping, was summed up when asked what the answer was to the doping issue: "Get more British cyclists". And it is here that the sociological and cultural differences in the history of cycling between Britain and mainland Europe manifest themselves.

Although British cyclists such as David Millar, and most famously Tommy “If it takes ten to kill you, I’ll have nine” Simpson, have been caught and died through drug use, the hangover of Victorian amateurism remains with us in Britain today – witness the BOA’s ludicrous attempts to exclude Dwain Chambers, as if the Olympics was some paragon of athletic and moral purity. The commercial sponsorship by L’Auto of the Tour in 1903, meant the event soon became professionalised, and as James McGurn notes: “The Bicycle Union [of Britain] ... took issue with the Union Vélocipèdique de France over the French body's willingness to allows its "amateurs" to compete for prizes of up to 2,000 francs, the equivalent of about sixteen months' pay for a French manual worker.”

The die was thus cast and Britain reverted to track racing and time trialling, while the rest of Europe partook in incredibly hard stage racing (stages were up to 300 miles long, on virtually unpaved roads with bikes that had no gears). So hard were these events, that stopping off for a stiffening brandy or even a hit of cocaine, “the natural stimulant,” was not unheard of in the early years of the Tour. The lure of financial and social rewards, along with the extreme nature of stage racing, meant that professionalised endurance events in Europe went hand-in-hand with ‘doping’.

Cycling in Britain was different. Although time trialling was hard, as an amateur sport, without any large financial prizes at stake, the taking of PED’s was never a significant aspect of British cycling culture. A point largely misunderstood on the continent. Despite some high-profile dopers, the history of British cycling is full of names who have reached the pinnacle of cycling without resorting to drugs, or even being a professional. Graeme Obree, possibly one of this nation’s most unsung sporting heroes, not only broke the hour record as an amateur on a homemade bike twice, but when he turned professional he walked out of his new French based team having heard he was expected to ‘chip-in’ for “supplementary medicine” costs. Such principled behaviour, as Mike McNamee, founding Chair of the British Philosophy of Sport Association, notes: “is a British phenomenon, we are imbued with Victorian values of playing the game 'fairly'.”

Playing fair, or choosing to gain a competitive advantage, was a largely moral question, and testing remained rare until after the infamous Olympic 100m final of 1988. The authorities appeal to an athlete’s better nature remained until Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which formed a part of the wider ‘War on Drugs’. Crucially, the issue of drugs in sport was no longer a moral question, but a legal one.

The rewards for winning the Tour, or a gold medal in London this summer are such that many are prepared to break these laws in order to attain them. Since ‘criminalisation’ cycling supporters, who previously accepted (begrudgingly or not) doping as a part of the sport, now, with the press leading the way, question the integrity of their sporting heroes. Team Sky supremo Dave Brailsford has thus invited the anonymous doubters to a seminar at Manchester at the end of year. It will be interesting to see who takes him up on the offer. However, until one of our current leading cyclists is caught, our cycling heritage dictates that the benefit of doubt must remain with Wiggins. 

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