Sunday, 22 September 2013

Millar's tale of bikes and doping has a moral for all sport

True Christian morality – the kind based on the actual reported sayings of Christ – can be pretty tough.
Take the parable of the Prodigal Son. I’ve always thought it a trifle harsh on the hard-working elder son that it should be his riotous kid brother who got the party and the fatted calf.
There is something of this in the way professional cycling has responded to the former Cofidis team-mates David Moncoutié and David Millar.
You’d have to be a pretty keen fan to have heard of Frenchman Moncoutié. Over a 15-year career, he won two stages of the Tour de France and four of the Vuelta a Espana and was twice King of the Mountains in the seven-day Paris-Nice race.
What is exceptional is that he did it all clean – that is, drug-free – at a time, and on a team, when that was not generally considered the normal way to win things.
Millar, who began his career at the same time, also started out determined to do it clean. For a few years he tried, and had some success.
Ironically, by the time he was arrested for doping in 2004 he was again racing clean. But in between times he had made regular use of the banned performance-enhancing EPO.
At his eventual trial in a French court he was acquitted of legal offences, but his admission of cheating had already cost him a two-year ban from cycling.
The first of those two years, by his own account, was pretty much one continuous bender. By the end of it he’d gone from riches to rags, from playboy lifestyle to living on his sister’s floor. He was every bit the prodigal.
But what makes him really interesting is the way he acknowledged his own errors and failings and set about using his experiences to help clean up what had become a very dirty sport.
Who better than a reformed doper to sit on the athletes’ committee of the World Anti-Doping Agency?
Someone who really knows what he’s talking about. Someone who understands how easy it can be to slip into a world where doping is expected. Who knows first-hand about both the physical and psychological effects.
Millar’s ‘Racing Through the Dark’, in which he lays all these things out clearly and starkly, is the best book about sport that I’ve read.
Not the best written, perhaps. But probably the most honest, certainly the most revealing and the one with the most emotional punch. And he doesn’t go easy on either himself or his sport.
Written before the full public revelation of Lance Armstrong’s years of drug misuse, it’s very interesting in its depiction of the disgraced American.
In the early chapters, Armstrong comes across as unexpectedly likeable. Later, though, once Millar has returned to cycling as an anti-drug crusader, there’s a coldness between them.
“Lance is a charismatic but controversial man,” Millar writes.
“Yes, there are all the stories and rumours, but I never saw him dope with my own eyes. If he did dope, then, after all he has said and done, it would be unforgiveable.”
Just so.
And then there’s Bradley Wiggins, the man who – along with this year’s Tour de France champion Chris Froome – has demonstrated more clearly than anyone that it is possible to win the Grand Tours without dope.
After a good start between them, Millar falls out with Wiggins too. Not over anything to do with drugs but because of Wiggins’s single-minded pursuit of his own personal success – rather like the young Millar, maybe, but unforgiveable to the dedicated team-player he has become.
Well, perhaps not quite unforgiveable as the two have teamed up since in the GB Olympic team.
And Wiggins, of course, has made nonsense of Millar’s claim that “we were certain that he’d never be on the podium at the Tour”.
The most ironic thing in Millar’s book, though, is an episode which demonstrates that drug-use is not quite the clean-cut issue some people suggest.
After crashing at the 2001 Vuelta, he suffered a severe reaction to the perfectly legal anti-inflammatory cream he was given. The cure for that was a dose of cortisone – legal as a treatment for tendonitis but not for any other use. So his team reported that he had tendonitis.
Sometimes it’s not only the cheats and liars who weave tangled webs, but the authorities too.
There are some dark times and tangled webs in Millar’s book, both for himself and his sport.
But it’s a tale with some true heroes – notably Dave Brailsford. The head of both British Cycling and Team Sky has been at the forefront of cleaning up the sport, but he was also there for Millar – literally at his side – when times were hardest and his disgrace deepest.
Millar’s tale – of racing through the dark and emerging into the light – is cycling’s tale too. And it’s finally an uplifting one.

Leg irons and stun guns, suitable for use in torture, were found to be on sale in London last week at a major international arms fair. Illegally.
This is appalling. But is it really any more sickening than the huge array of ingeniously lethal weaponry on sale perfectly legally at the same glittering function?
As long as Britain goes on making and marketing weapons of war, it’s hard to see how our leaders can claim any moral high ground over the people who buy and use them.

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