Cycling’s quest for credibility still has long road to travel
Tour de France draws millions of viewers despite few people believing sport is clean
Alberto Contador was stripped of the Tour de France title he won in 2010. Photograph: PA Wire/PA Wire.
It’s a funny thing, credibility, intangible yet immediately identifiable. When you know, you know. Nietzsche believed it came from the senses and before the syph’ scrambled his own, he identified quite a lot. But even he might have been stumped by the Tour De France, which remains beyond rhyme, reason and maybe even retrieval.
To vast swathes of the sporting audience, cycling’s credibility has long since been left on the Alpine mountaintop to die; a syringe-wielding, blood-tampering charade; wild-eyed streaks of cheating gristle sweating their way towards pay-offs dealt out by hard-eyed amoral suits focused solely on the bottom-line.
Too much has gone on over too long not to doubt the entire systemic mess. No one truly believes a thing anyone does or says. The automatic inclination from anyone without an agenda when presented with the line that things are better, or improving, or maybe even just the same, must be to ponder what kind of flim-flam they’re being pedalled now.
Cycling is not alone in this. Track and field has long since waved bye-bye to its public credibility too. But cycling, and specifically the Tour, remains a little bit different. Maybe it’s because of the prolonged nature of the tawdry controversies surrounding it, accompanied by the vivid personalities involved and the dramatic nature of the immense physical challenge, which begins again this Saturday.
Once again it will present an unsettling paradox: only the most gullible can entirely believe what they are looking at, yet the world will still tune in. So while there are obvious questions in terms of how cycling goes about trying to retrieve its credibility, there’s an underlying question too about whether or not that might actually matter to millions who simultaneously remain consumed by the Tour’s bells-and-whistles.
It also remains damn difficult, no matter what the extent of their apologists’ arguments, to worry about the consequences to those who freely choose to cheat: it’s hardly uber-harsh to argue that at some stage, everyone has to stand over their own decisions, no matter what external pressures may be applied.
The credibility question though underlines everything. Presuming – and maybe it is a dangerous presumption – such credibility is vital to the long-term future of any sport, it is fascinating to examine the continuing battle cycling faces in trying to get a jaded public to believe in it again. Not those tuning in anyway, but those who want to care, yet can’t believe what they’re looking at.
Can a sport ever recover such an audience? Is credibility like virginity – there’s no getting it back?
There’s nothing easy about it because it’s mostly a ‘lose-lose’ deal. Smoothing everything over and pretending everything is fine was the disaster that led to the current situation. No one believed it, except those with a financial stake in pretending to believe it, while everyone else reflexively knew what they were getting was an illusory bright tip on top of a darkly sinister iceberg.
Attempts at transparency on the other hand invariably lead to ceaseless headlines which only reinforce suspicions about it all being a farce, with the doping iceberg peeping obtrusively over the surface. So cycling’s authorities are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. But they hardly help themselves either. How credible, for instance, did it sound earlier this year when the new reforming UCI brass questioned a witness in Cycling’s Independent Reform Commission who maintained up to 90 per cent of top-level riders dope?
Maybe that is hopelessly pessimistic and wrong. But when cycling’s bosses pour even a tincture of cold water on such statements, it harks back to the bad old days of ‘give us the evidence and we’ll act’.
What isn’t sufficient is tokenism, and it’s hardly encouraging when the loathsome liar, Lance Armstrong, cycling’s self-described Voldemort, plays his manipulative games and actually makes sense when pointing out how banishing a single, albeit spectacular, bad guy doesn’t clean the slate.
It was right to banish Armstrong, and it still is.
It’s ridiculous though to think he somehow took the doping culture with him, and during the coming weeks Alberto Contador will be a persistent reminder of the scale of the task cycling faces in restoring public faith in the sport.
Contador won the 2010 Tour but subsequently tested positive for clenbuterol and was stripped of his title two years later, yet another shameful asterisk on the Tour’s roll-of-honour. Contador is second-favourite behind Chris Froome in some betting lists for the 2015 race on the back of a Giro victory, which testifies to the Spaniard’s continuing remarkable durability.
But how is he allowed to line up? What does his presence say to those who suspect the whole thing to be a cheating mess? It is a mystery how any realistic commentary can ponder the legitimacy of his credentials for more Tour glory without acknowledging such a hopelessly compromised reputation. Where does cycling go for the surgery to enable it to present this with a straight face?
We’ll instinctively know when cycling is getting real. But the brutal truth is the credibility battle is still being lost.