Vélo Files: Australian Idols

Anthony Tan

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Once a fan's favourite...Stuart O'Grady
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Is this what we’ve been reduced to? Does cynicism in cycling run so deep, we can no longer believe in anything? We can still have our heroes, writes Anthony Tan – just not the old ones.

In the event of an amnesty, how we can know what will happen if we’ve never had one before? I’d like to think change is possible.

“She inspires a lot of kids. And she’s just, like… wow! A-maz-ing. Just… wow. Seeing her come through the Olympics, where she didn’t quite get to the top – (then) coming back and fighting for the top spot (at the Worlds), it’s… a-maz-ing! It’s kind of made me think, like, wow – I want to be like her. I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t want to be.”

Words gushed from little Natalie Pettett’s mouth so effusively, the fledgling BMX competitor, little more than 10 years old, I imagine, kept tripping over her words, asked to describe her fellow Canberran, Caroline Buchanan.

It came at the end of a story from the ABC in Canberra, a few days after Buchanan realised an ambition she housed since she was eight: to be the best female BMX rider in the world.

The BMX Worlds in Auckland this July was her first event since her soul-destroying performance at the London Games, where she qualified first and could therefore chose any lane, but “took lane three and blew it. I made sure I didn’t make the same mistake again and went for lane one this time around."

“I wasn’t one hundred per cent over what happened at the Olympic Games until now,” she said, having reached her apotheosis.

Following the fallout from the US Anti-Doping Agency’s damning thousand page dossier, released last October, the confessions some of us want are coming, but rather than an en masse mea culpa, like a leaking tap that keeps you awake at night, the admissions are trickling out, one by one.

Drip, drip, drip.

That – and the Mugabe-esque attempt to rig the UCI presidential election, slated for September 27 during the road world championships in Florence, Italy – is killing the integrity of the sport.

It has made me, and scores more, I’m sure, question whether athletes are suitable role models.

It’s not like they’re qualified to do so. And do they really possess the maturity to pass down anything other than a few tidbits’ advice about training or nutrition? Living a normal life… what would they know about living a normal life?

After being let down by doping confessions time and time again, leading many to a state of perpetual pessimism and cynicism, why not simply become a fan of the sport, rather than an admirer of any one athlete?

If you do become attached to an individual, like Lance Armstrong or Stuart O’Grady or [insert childhood hero], aren’t you just setting yourself up for future heartache?

The O’Grady confession didn’t affect me too badly, to be honest.

In one of my first weeks at journalism school, I was told that it’s okay to befriend a subject, so as to extract certain juicy bits of information – information that will hopefully lead your editor to say, ‘This is an exclusive, stick it on the front page!’ – but it’s not cricket to become friends with that subject, for you never know what lies beneath.

And so, for the best part of the last fifteen years, I’ve remained emotionally connected to cycling, in a not dissimilar way to when I was racing, but psychologically disconnected from the athletes I write about.

Good bloke, bad bloke, narcissistic wanker, humble as pie, über-talent, zero talent, rich, poor, intellect, bore… it didn’t really matter to me. Very quickly, I learned everyone had an interesting story to tell and it was my job to tell it, and, under the right conditions, almost everyone could be corrupted. It was my job to sort fact from BS, and as well as tell stories from the bike – that is, the ‘who won and how did they do it?’ – enlighten audiences with stories of the men and women behind the bike.

But not everyone is a journalist. Nor are all journalists like me.

Clearly, my colleague Mike Tomalaris, despite feeling duped by O’Grady, wants us to continue to hold the South Australian in high esteem. On the other hand, Al Hinds, one of Cycling Central’s Gen Y connections, says an amnesty will never happen, because the Omertà still prevails and there is no incentive to come forward, other than to clear one’s conscience.

Both views, I largely disagree with.

Tomo’s assuming O’Grady’s telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, even though his confession is sounding an awful lot like Erik Zabel’s “I only used EPO once to prepare for the 1996 Tour de France” 2007 proclamation, which of course turned out to be a big fat lie.

In fact, even now, I don’t think Zabel’s telling us everything, for he says “I never had a structured doping plan, never had any experts around me. I never saw myself as a ‘super-doper’.”

But Erik, you spent thirteen years riding for one of the dirtiest teams in Generation EPO – T-bloody-Mobile, for Christ’s sake!

Al Hinds seems to think an amnesty, or truth and reconciliation commission (TRC), is as futile as moving deck chairs on the Titanic.

“Social stigma is something no amnesty or truth and reconciliation can ever repair,” he wrote in his recent blogpost.

But his guess is based on how things stand now, and under current UCI leadership. What if Brian Cookson were to take charge after the September elections, and, as per his mandate, institute real change, including a TRC? What if Lance Armstrong, once the sport’s most influential and polarising figure, was to spill the beans on everything – and I mean everything – he knew, but has kept secret, since he’s already up to his eyeballs in lawsuits?

Considering the prospect of an amnesty, how we can we say what will happen if we’ve never had one before? I’d like to think change is possible.

Sure, to some extent, history will repeat itself, for there will always be those prepared to bend – or break – the rules. This year’s Giro d’Italia, with three high-profile doping positives, is a case in point. But to put cycling, sport, or whatever you believe in – or used to believe in – down as a lost cause?

Sorry, but I’m not prepared to accept defeat. And neither should you.

I can’t remember who said it, but as one cyclist declared during this year’s Tour, “We must eradicate doping, but we must also eradicate suspicion.”

And like Natalie Pettett, I’m not prepared to accept that our future generations can no longer have their heroes. They just can’t have the ones we used to have.

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