Le Tour: We don’t believe it but we still consume it

Evidence suggests we might even cheer meat-covered robots if we really want to

 A spectator on horseback waves a French flag as the pack rides during the eighth stage of the 105th edition of the Tour de France  between Dreux and Amiens, northern France. Photograph: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty

A spectator on horseback waves a French flag as the pack rides during the eighth stage of the 105th edition of the Tour de France between Dreux and Amiens, northern France. Photograph: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty

 

Charlie Sheen isn’t the first figure to spring to mind in relation to the Tour de France. But the famously louche Hollywood actor once uttered a line that’s at the heart of drugs in sport and which ‘Le Tour’ forces us to face – do we really care about doping?

The line is in Two And A Half Men, a series nobody admitted to watching yet somehow topped ratings for years. Sheen’s character is watching baseball on telly and eventually has had enough.

“Okay I’m just going to come out and say it: baseball was better with steroids,” he announces. “Call me crazy but I think people would pay real money to see a meat-covered robot hit a ball 750 feet.”

This was on the back of the series of steroid scandals that rocked American baseball and saw some of the game’s most famous names revealed as cheats. Sheen’s line is for laughs and works because it resonates.

Baseball’s drugs problems make it an oasis of restraint in comparison to the world’s most famous bike race, a sporting showpiece which has seen decades of outrage generated by repeated revelations of systemic cheating and political expediency.

Thanks to the determination of some very laudable whistle-blowers and investigators no one pleads ignorance any more

Cycling’s reputation has long since been shot to smithereens. No one can really believe any of it anymore which is unfair on those playing fair but is the inevitable outcome of years of commercial cynicism and ethical erosion. Yet ‘Le Tour’ still thrives. And eventually you have to ask why?

Because logically it shouldn’t register at all. Doping is supposed to eliminate credibility. The great presumption is that we, the public, when presented with evidence of doping in a particular sport, will switch off in disgust and not consume it any more.

That’s the outrage deal. If it’s impossible to believe what you’re looking at it then obviously no one’s going to look. That’s the ‘Ta-Da’ at the end the revelatory scoop.

The Col du Galibier climb has been removed from this year’s Tour de France following landslides. Photograph: Getty
Tour de France: "The great presumption is that we, the public, when presented with evidence of doping in a particular sport, will switch off in disgust and not consume it any more." File photograph: Getty Images

Except the Tour hasn’t gone away. Despite abundant evidence as to what a squalid charade it has been, its appeal still holds. Certainly a vast core continental audience is showing little sign of the sort of disillusionment that might make it turn away.

And that’s amazing because parsed down, cycling by now really should be facing the final corral of the commercial slaughterhouse.

Thanks to the determination of some very laudable whistle-blowers and investigators no one pleads ignorance any more. Fans can’t. Neither can sponsors. But there’s no shortage of either for the race which is currently being lucratively beamed around the globe.

Role model

The ‘Eurosport’ channel has pledged commitment to its cycling coverage on the back of record audience ratings for the three major Tours in 2017. Even a cursory look at its coverage reveals sponsors clearly eager to be associated with the event.

This is a sport which in ‘bang to rights’ commercial terms should be a no-go. It really should have been long since been banished to digital TV exile, skulking between the Squeezy Mop channel and Boobs R Us. Cycling as a brand ought to be marketing death.

Apparently the science is that doping scandals lead only to brief fall-offs in consumption

Except even on a local level try telling that to all these so-called ‘Mamils’ paying thousands for bikes and sweating up to the Sally Gap every Sunday. It might be naff. It’s certainly a kick to this silly idea of sport’s role model duty. But there’s no denying it’s on-trend.

None of which should make cheating at elite level okay. It certainly doesn’t legitimise facile arguments about the fight against doping being futile and it being easier to simply let everybody take whatever they want. Sport is too vital for such supercilious nonsense. But clearly ‘should’ is subjective.

I think the fight against doping is vital so I choose not to invest anything in ‘Le Tour.’ But it’s delusional to ignore how consumption levels prove an awful lot more people have looked at the same scandals and decided they’re fine with them.

Years of revelation, dudgeon and invitation to be appalled only seem to have scratched the ethical paintwork. Arguing the public should respond differently not only smacks of priggishness but ignores how people still mostly like to make their own minds up about they feel about things.

That extends far beyond cycling. For instance the reputation of elite athletics has long since been parked in the gutter, reduced to a sordid political plaything. Except it hasn’t gone away either. We don’t believe it. But we still consume it.

Drugs cheat

We consume a lot of sport like that. Maria Sharapova returned after serving a 15-month ban and the tennis public welcomed her back at this year’s Australian Open with cries of ‘C’mon Masha – we missed you’. And they did. And she’s a ‘bang to rights’ drugs cheat.

Maria Sharapova in action against Christina McHale of the United States in their second round match during day four of the Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament in Madrid. Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Maria Sharapova: "A 'bang to rights' drugs cheat." File photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The reality seems to be that invitations to affront have only fleeting appeal. Apparently the science is that doping scandals lead only to brief fall-offs in consumption. With baseball it was calculated the steroids controversy directly affected turnover for a fortnight. Devoted fans stay devoted.

It’s hard not to suspect we do care about doping. But only so far

That’s particularly dispiriting for anyone who relishes sport’s inherent aspiration towards fairness. But none of us can claim shock either. There is abundant evidence of individuals taking the fall in the public consciousness and conveniently allowing more systemic issues to get parked to the side.

Lance Armstrong cuts no less odious a figure now than he did when lying to the world. So it’s uncomfortable to have to acknowledge he’s only telling the truth about having done what everyone else was doing. The only thing different was the scale of the lie.

It’s hard not to suspect we do care about doping. But only so far. Stunning pictures of ‘Le Tour’ winding its way around France will continue this week and only stiffen the sad suspicion that we’re prepared to swallow any kind of crap so long as it looks good and we really, really want it.

Which means those meat-covered robots mightn’t be long coming.

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