Living through the dark – a reflection on David Millar’s Autobiography

“The man is greater than his victories and defeats, the man is worth more than the cyclist…In the champion beats the heart of a boy…a heart that needs normality and cannot be sacrificed to exploitation.”

Bishop Antonio Lanfranchi’s eulogy at Marco Pantani’s funeral.

Like Marmite, David Millar splits opinion. Unlike Marmite the categories of opinion don’t split neatly into a neat like/hate split. I know, I’ve got various shades running through the other 3 members of my family. So his biography – Racing Through the Dark – was always bound to please and annoy people to varying degrees. For me, this book made a lasting impact as much for its lessons in life as its revelations about cycling culture. Long awaited by some, bound to be dismissed by others, I was interested to read what was rightly or wrongly billed as the confessions of a poacher turned gamekeeper. What I didn’t expect was the honesty with which the book is written (though I appreciate some of you will immediately question that) and the insight into the life of someone under immense pressure. Nor did I expect any of this to relate to my life in such a strong way.

Millar’s choice of preface for his book is quite apt and shouldn’t be dismissed as trite. It is the euology from Marco Pantani’s funeral, the sentiments of which show that whilst a man is culpable we should not ignore the context in which he makes his mistakes. I can see why some would object to this. For some it smacks of a cop out, the dopers’ club feeling absolved through divine intervention.  But read those lines again and they make a lot of sense. The pressure of modern life in general and in particular a job which shapes them into something they hadn’t necessarily wanted to be is not just the stuff of professional cycling. It is something that touches many of us and is most definitely something that I have strongly felt in recent years. And whilst some will point out that if we feel like this we should go and do something else, this course of action is not so easy to do. And when you feel that what you are doing is in some way your calling, a devotion if you like, breaking the chain might almost be seen as a failure.

Racing through the Dark is not only an open account of the dark side of professional cycling but an honest account of how it affects the athlete psychologically, the pressure placed on the athlete to succeed (by themselves, by team management and sponsors and by team mates to name a few) and their abandonment by those who pushed them into their moment(s) of madness (see previous list). It is an honest account of the frailty of being human and our abilities to act irrationally – even if our action at the time seem to us rational in the context.

The drive for success has been all consuming for many professional cyclists.The physical consequences of a professional career can be seen in many an ex-rider. Yet despite the repeated patterns of depression, drug and alcohol abuse and even suicide amongst ex-pros, the psychological impact is somewhat ignored.  This is true of most professional/elite sport as exemplified recent events in football. And it is equally true in everyday life.  Pushing ourselves to the limit to do “our best” (working long hours, taking work home (literally and mentally), constantly networking) often takes it toll in all to readily unforeseen ways besides the physical symptoms. In this book, Millar makes a a clear recognition of the hitherto unstated link between the two.  Millar was lucky to realise before it was too late, others have not been so lucky. Take the case of Frank Vandenbroucke:

“That experience [taking EPO] had an impact on me. I began to think of myself as two separate entities: mind and body. My body was a tool that was capable of things that I previously hadn’t thought possible. Now I know why Frank Vandenbroucke was always pushing the envelope and seeing how far he could go. It was a game, in which he played God with his own body. And in the process, Frank lost his mind.”

No excuse is offered for what Vandenbroucke did – Millar reflects on the implications of VDBs actions for him as a teammate – but it tries to place what happened to him in an objective context. It is quite easy to see how and why professional athletes cheat and dope. It is part of the drive where the conscious and unconscious become blurred and a fight or flight response develops to the environment.  Many have put this down to selfishness but whilst cyclists are self-driven to succeed many have self-doubts and are surrounded by others who want to assist in this success. Although many of these helpers do so by fair means there are some who adopt the foul.  Millar quotes Matt White (ex-pro and one time Garmin directeur sportif whose employment was terminated after questionable use of a non-team doctor) on his coaching of non-cyclists:

“It’s easy. Athletes are all the same…They’re all insecure. You just gotta make ’em feel good.”

The insecurity is the key. Build up confidence and make the athlete believe in themselves. And if certain products are needed then so be it. So what insecurity do we mean? Insecurity that you are not as good as others think is one, insecurity that you can’t win is another. But what about job insecurity? Professional sport is not reknowned for its stability of employment and to keep your job there is pressure to do what you are told.  For Millar there was pressure to win to keep a sponsor for a team and employer for his teammates, a team within which there was an established culture of doping and in a sport where at that time drug taking was seemingly not only tolerated but expected. When faced with the need to win, with support provided by those who already cheat and with an employer prepared to turn a blind eye until things are found out, the reasons why a rider might dope no longer come down simply to ego. Whilst this is no excuse how many of you can say you have not been put under pressure at work to do things which bend if not break the rules? Recently I was told by someone working as an electrician for a large “solutions provider” that although there are set safety procedures which include turning off the power before doing work, electricians are regularly told to carry on on live circuits to save time and inconvenience. There are few qualms about the safety of the worker in the face of competition. Yes the worker can do the job by the book but what happens when they don’t hit the targets they are set? For me this is a similar situation that faces professional athletes. It is not an excuse for doping per se but begins to explain the pressure leading to that decision. There is a context to every action yet so often we fail to see the whole picture.

For me Millar is a good guy who did a bad thing. To that end he is human. And whilst some will question if Millar is telling the whole truth in this book, Racing Through the Dark goes a long way to providing an insight into the wider context of doping in professional sport and cycling in particular. It exposes the psychology of the athlete, the pressures from those around him and the continued lack of focus by the authorities on the systems which enable this to persist.  Millar doped, he confessed and he did his time. He apologised, returned to the sport and is now working to make a positive difference. There will remain those for whom his past misdemanour is enough for some to write him off for good but hold your hands up if you’ve never made a mistake and been given a second chance. His sometimes messianic words rankle with others but this is equally his passion. And though Bradley Wiggins and other British riders can be upheld as clean and commendable examples for young people, for me Millar is equally a positive example and one we need to learn from. In making a mistake he learnt a lesson and in working hard to make amends he is exposing the realities of why athletes dope and exposing many of the unanswered questions which have to be addressed if cycling is to win it’s battle against drugs.

But Racing Through the Dark is more than a sporting autobiography, it is an enlightening tale of the competing pressures made on us by everyday life. And though it provides few answers, in exposing the wider context in which we make our decisions and our mistakes, it is a useful set of lights when riding through the dark of life.

Racing Through the Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar by David Millar is published by Orion (ISBN 9781409120384)

Mirroring Life

It is often said that sport mirrors real life. What is rarely acknowledged is that we all too often treat sport as being different from everything else. In particular we expect it to be played by the rules and don’t (or won’t) understand why some people cheat.  The problem with this view is that in real life we are surrounded by cheating of various degrees, some which is overtly frowned upon, some which is somehow ignored.  Why should sport be any different?

Comments following the cricket match fixing trial made me think about this.   One in particular (see below) almost prompted me to respond. But 140 characters didn’t seem quite enough so here is the longer considered version.

If Cricketers can be jailed, why not jail EPO using cyclists.

Sir Ian Botham yesterday suggested that this was cricket’s “darkest day”. If we are comparing this to the problems faced by other sports Sir Ian and others should probably be prepared for a bumpy ride. As he himself and others have rightly reflected, it is 10 years since former South Africa captain Hansie Cronje was found guilty of match fixing.  As William Fortheringham notes in Roule Britannia cycling has faced a drug-related scandal roughly every 10 years since 1967. Cycling is still not out of the woods.  FIFA lurches from one allegation of corruption to another, officials are only corrupt if caught after crossing too many swords with the wrong people and yet football remains the World’s sport. And I think we can leave the problems of England’s Rugby Football Union to another time.  Here is where sport mirrors life: despite problems, scandals, even deaths, these sports carry on and continue to be played/competed in; and corruption exists, cheats are found out but only after integrating happily in the milieu of that community.  Name a part of everyday life and these characteristics exist to a greater or lesser degree. It’s certainly not cricket but then it isn’t in real life either.

That is the first part of the response. The second part is the comparison being drawn with cycling. This is where it is easy to draw quick conclusions but look deeper and the situations are complex and subtly different.  David Brailsford and 100 Climbs raise an interesting possibility for deterring cheats through the criminal process.  Cricket has had to go through this process at the behest of the Metropolitan Police and Crown Prosecution Service following evidence presented by a newspaper in a sting operation.  It is doubtful if this was the route the cricketing authorities themselves would have chosen nor were they seemingly proactive in tackling this issue.  Cycling, as with other sports, has already faced the criminal justice system in relation to doping.  Joe Papp was recently prosecuted under existing US laws on drug trafficking, The Festina Scandal and Cofidis affair both ended in court appearances and prosecutions in France and France, Germany and Italy, to name just three countries, have adopted laws which class doping as sporting fraud.  The “jail the doper” call is a nice soundbite but it is neither innovative nor fair.

To compare match fixing with doping is difficult. Whilst they are both forms of cheating this is where the comparison ends.  The aim of a cricket bowler is to bowl the ball effectively enough to gain a wicket and not give away runs. To bowl a no-ball goes completely against this and cheats your own side not the opposition per se.  The aim of cycling is to cross the line first and win the race. Doping in order to enhance performance to do this is a logical step and for many has been seen as part and parcel of competing professionally. So immediately we are at odds in comparing the issues.  To partake in either is driven by different motives and involves a set of circumstances driven not just by the perpetrator of the crime but by a backroom staff driving the culprit on.

Dopers in cycling rarely do it on their on or for themselves alone, there is a pressure to dope from peers, from sponsors, from public expectation to perform, be that winning or being there to help someone else win.  In a way this makes the problem in cycling more logical and, one would hope, more straightforward to tackle.  To jail the doper ignores the system which drives them to dope and supplies them with the product, not dissimilar to other drug addicts in real life and we are far from addressing that complex set of problems in our communities.  Why expect it to be different in sport.

The popular view is that these Pakistani cricketers were driven by the financial reward cheating would bring. Clearly there’s no denying that but why would they do so if the penalty was not only a sporting ban but a prison sentence.  Mohammad Amir perhaps encapsulates the reasons why: born into a non-affluent background one of 7 children, left home at 11 to play cricket, rose to stardom by the age of 19 he had rapidly risen to stardom and now playing amongst some of his heroes.  It is not difficult to see how the money earned from cricket helped his family nor is it beyond the realms of fantasy to think that he was under immense peer pressure.  As with cycling, it seems that a lack of support from within the team and the influences of key players drove one person to go beyond the line of what is fair and right.  It is quite conceivable that financial motives drive the decisions of them all as did the fear of alleged reprisals on their families for not doing as they were instructed, indeed these are more about self preservation that the dopers lament. The 3 cricketers jailed are also victims, whilst they clearly cheated there is a cast of thousands behind them who may never face the consequences of their actions. To address corruption in cricket is therefore not just about the players, it is also about the living conditions from which they and their families come from and the political system in the countries the represent.  Again, we are not making great progress in these either.

If only dealing with cheats was so easy, the world would be a better place not just in sport but in our everyday lives.  As we witness each and every day that is simply not the case. Ultimately we are all human. Fotheringham illustrates this in his chapter on David Millar in Roule Britannia:

I asked Millar to describe the margin between taking drugs and staying clean. “It’s that,” he says, and holds up finger and thumb in front of me. The gap between them is half an inch. “I was 100% sure I would never dope, 100%, then all of a sudden it was out of control. Cycling had become my life, the only thing that defined me and I resented that. It was ‘fuck it’. It was like flipping a coin. You don’t stop and think. If you think about it, it’s game over.

Good people can do bad things without clear explanation or reason.  That is life.

Sport does mirror life warts and all.  If we want to address the cheats in the reflection we need to tackle them in real life as well.

It will survive

So in case you all missed it the line of those accusing Lance Armstrong of doping is getting bigger. The latest accuser is Tyler Hamilton. Like Floyd Landis before him, Hamilton was a prominent member of Armstrong’s US Postal Team, a faithful lieutenant who left to pursue his own Tour ambitions and then tested positive for his own doping offences. As has been pointed out by a variety of correspondents on Twitter these sources are hardly whiter than white but at least they are spilling the beans. Meanwhile Larry continues to trot out the “I’ve never tested positive” defence as if it is bulletproof and turn scorn on his accusers via Twitter tirades. Read my previous few posts and either he ignores the totality of the war on doping and the circumstantial nature of evidence employed in some cases or he has done something to put the dogs at bay. You can make up you’re own mind which. Some might say this is the ultimate time to admit cycling is corrupt. So is it time to give up?

In my view as just another ordinary Joe who watches from the roadside is no.  I’ve done quite a bit of soul searching and I can confidently say that my life would be missing something without cycling and without pro-cycling in particular. Some would say I am obsessed. I can’t plan much in July because of a certain race around France.  I stay up to watch highlights of obscure races from around the world.  Some would say I am strange. I watch men in lycra battle it out with each other. I delight in the pain of the battle, I relish the uphill fight and I want to see them hurt.  Yet without these small pleasures, life at times could be pretty rubbish.

As I’ve indicated before, friends keep telling me cyclists are all doped. They ask me why I watch the sport with such devotion. They wonder how I can live with such deceit. I’ve tried to defend it. I’ve tried the “no they don’t all dope, it’s a minority, line. It never felt convincing.  So I tried to tell them that cycling is changing only for another scandal to come along. I’ve even tried to convince them that it only has this image because it is doing something about the problem. None of it washes. I couldn’t care about the people I’m trying to convince. Many of them watch professional footballers with relish and sweep under the carpet behaviour which is far worse than cheating to win a race, behaviour which harms the lives of others.  Yes folks, this is life. Its not always nice and everything is relative.

So in the same way that Tyler Hamilton has penned his own confession, this is mine: I love cycling and I’ve got to the point where I don’t really care.  Yes, that may shock some people but I’m tired of making a defence to others.  Just as in motor-racing developments are made in order for cars to go faster, so cycling adopts other means of enhancement.  Listening to the Flammecast’s interview with Festinagirl I must admit I increasingly can’t see what the lines of distinction are between administering health care to riders and performance enhancement. We know the extremes but we don’t know the happy medium.

What I want to see is racing. I want attacks, I want climaxes. Sure, if people dope they should be caught and I want the authorities to do their bit in providing a level playing field, one which includes them playing by the rules.  But do I care if Bertie ate a contaminated steak? Come off it.  Does it matter if an ex-doper manages or coaches in the sport? I doubt it very much.  But I care about the riders. I care about the people involved in the sport. They provide my entertainment, and just as we had painful sorrow last week at the death of a rider, there are too many victims in this whole sorry mess. The comment has been repeatedly made on Twitter that both good guys and bad guys dope. The good guys ultimately confess (for whatever reason).  Having lived with my own set of masks I learnt to my own cost how destructive they are and what a relief it is to finally drop them.  In doing so I’m sure they have been through pain and relief too.  So I’m actually going to stop pointing fingers at the innocent.  However, where Larry differs is the venom of the attack and the willingness to destroy.  In this way he is the premiership footballer who has affairs behind the screen of a super injunction rather than the mere cheat who won a cycle race.  For all he’s done for the sport, he is doing his best to undermine.

Cycling won’t die. I will still follow it. You will still follow it. Riders will come and go, some will dope whilst others ride clean.  Whilst these remain misdemeanours I’m afraid I’m going to have to turn a blind eye. I merely hope they catch the nasty, corrosive and destructive elements that have burrowed into the heart of the sport.  Getting rid of them might just give us a basis to be truly proud. Until then I’m taking my moments of happiness in life and trying not to worry about the rest.

The appliance of science

Following last week’s posts on the UCI suspicion list leak and their reaction to it, I was interested to read the following piece by Ross Tucker on his blog The Science of Sport.  Obviously the leak by L’Equipe has created a lot of reaction and debate to the extent that at least one rider’s agent is threatening to sue the UCI for defamation over the matter.  Therefore a piece which tries to separate out the leak (as an act of organisational incompetence) from the subject (the development of a tool in the pursuit of dopers) by illuminating the science of the biological passport is both helpful to the uninitiated (as I alluded to last week) and a necessary brake on the runaway train of claim and counter claim.  After reading this I better understand the use and limitations of the biological passport as part of a wider amroury available to the powers that be. However, as both Ross and @Festinagirl have highlighted, the application of this science when left in the hands of dysfunctional organisations is open to abuse and manipulation.  So whilst I am slightly more convinced about the methods the methodology and application need much better explanation and transparency.

Who’s Zooming Who?

There never seems to be a week go by without yet another suggestion that rider x has doped.  From the authorities’ perspective it is clear to see how a “guilty until proved innocent” view of the peloton has taken hold given the severity of the problem at hand and the mountain they are scaling.  But from a fans’ perspective the situation is at best disappointing, at worst down right depressing and reason enough for even the most committed follower to doubt the pack.  And try explaining it to your friends like so many of us have to in our offices, pubs and meeting places everyday. It strikes me that none of this is helpful in the way that it is currently being played out.

I think I remarked in a previous post that all systems of justice are, at least in theory, based on the notion that anyone accused of wrong doing is innocent until proved guilty.  Unfortunately all justice systems come under pressure in practice and the theory can be tested to a point of failure.  In his Coventry lecture, Greg LeMond refers to the fact that people have been found guilty and executed in the US on evidence that is more circumstantial than in most cycling doping cases.  One positive of the protracted doping cases is the fact that most avenues of guilt and innocence can be explored through extensive evidence gathering.

However, the protracted nature of doping cases is a drawback in allowing a rider to remain innocent.  Read autobiographies of riders in the 1970s and 1980s and although a positive test meant a slap on the wrists and a time penalty, justice was meted out swiftly. compare that with today where we are told that the outcome of the Contador case will hopefully be resolved by CAS before this year’s Tour.  Whether he did or didn’t, Contador is riding under a continued cloud.  Whilst speculation after a case will never be stopped, a more efficient system could provide some greater certainty.  This requires some clarity in the evidence required, the responsibility of riders and officials and the process to be followed, all in black and white without room for manoeuvre.

This is far from the case at the moment.  With advancements in doping technologies and practices so the fight has been taken in new directions.  The biological passport is one such move and a welcome addition when it first arrived.  However, most people’s faith in this system seems to have been tested to various limits and it is unclear what is adding to the system but further speculation.  The revelation today of the UCI’s leaked list of suspicious riders from last year’s Tour is based in significant part on riders’ values from their bio-passport prior to the event. But rather than the bio-passport being used to target and take action against riders it appears merely to add to speculation and conjecture without any hard evidence.  From a lay-persons perspective it is easy to understand what a positive dope test is but can you understand the parameters of guilt coming from the passport?    And this latest leak is another grey area in the fight: the UCI deny it is binding, others see it as valuable tool in the fight, and the press/blogs/twitter buzz with more speculation and counter-claim.  William Fortheringham’s Twitter suggestion that we compare our own list against the UCIs highlights just how this latest development appears far from scientific.  My own view of the list suggests there are some erroneous cases at both ends.  If it were a piece of student coursework I’d want to see the evidence on which it is based before marking it as anything but mediocre. It discredits any hard work underpinning it.

Ever since Operacion Puerto it appears that increasingly circumstantial evidence is being used in the fight against doping and this is an approach which will harm rather than strengthen the sport as it strengthens mistrust, as if the professional cycling world didn’t have enough of this already. Add to this the manner in which riders’ liaisons with persons of dubious character is also seen as a mark of the doper and we have lots of conjecture and little hard evidence.  For example Franco Pellizotti was convicted following his biological passport data and liaisons with Dr Michele Ferrari.  It is now known that Pellizotti trained behind Ferrari’s motorbike with Vincenzo Nibali.  Of course Nibali has not been sanctioned but I’m sure the rumours have now got stronger around his own efficacy. No longer is a positive dope test the path to guilt we have now employed bad science and poor choice of friends where the lines are blurred.

So once again its a case of who’s zooming who? The riders running rings around the administrators who are running rings around the riders and us, the viewing public.  Instead of greater certainty, the system is akin to a barrel of eels. Once again, I’m not condoning dopers but if the powers that be have any hope of catching them there needs to be much improved clarity of the system not so that riders can evade it but so that the rest of us can understand when the rules have been broken.  For a system to be fair the evidence has to be more than circumstantial.  Catching the dopers will always be a game of catch-up unless trust is built through improved clarity of the system.

UPDATE

Cycling Weekly has published a response by three of the rider named on the UCI list. Make your up minds up but two make some sense, the other highlights hte issue of evidence: http://www.cyclingweekly.co.uk/news/latest/525587/popovych-sky-millar-react-to-being-listed-suspicious.html