Lance Armstrong’s Only Sin Was Getting Caught

Lance ArmstrongThe furore over Lance Armstrong’s confession to Oprah, and by extension the world, of the fact he used performance enhancing drugs and blood doping to help him win his seven Tour de France titles, says more about the mass ignorance that surrounds the issue than it does about the integrity of Lance Armstrong. Indeed elite sport remains one of the few arenas of modern life where a massive gulf remains between public perception and reality. In other words the surprise is not that someone like Lance Armstrong was using performance enhancing drugs throughout his career, the surprise would have been if he had not.

Anyone with a basic knowledge of human physiology, nutrition, and high performance sports will know that elite athletes repeatedly transcend the limits of natural human potential both in their training and performance. Regardless of advances in science surrounding training, nutrition, and recovery, and regardless of genetics, it is impossible for the extraordinary feats of athletic and sporting performance we have become accustomed to witnessing on a regular basis without the aid of performance enhancing drugs. This at least is my contention.

The male hormone testosterone determines an individual’s natural level of strength, muscle mass, and aggression. The natural level of testosterone produced by a male in his peak years of physical development – from 18-21 – is around 6 mg per day. When it comes to growth hormone, essential for muscular development, a healthy immune system, bone density, growth, and cell regeneration, an average male’s levels drop off around the age of 30 by 1-2 percent per year, and by age 40 a man is naturally producing half of what he was at age 20. It is this decrease in GH that drives the ageing process.

Athletes are not average people. The stress they place on their muscular and skeletal systems, the demands placed on their cardiovascular system, and the impact this has on their central nervous system, is monumental. The ability to do so on a regular basis and recover makes the use of performance enhancing drugs, such as synthetic testosterone in its various forms, or growth hormone, not just desirable but essential for those whose aim is to compete at the highest level.

When it comes to Lance Armstrong and cycling in particular, the Tour de France is an event that requires those competing to smash through the limits of endurance, speed, and power time after time. Consequently the use of drugs and blood doping is almost required.

Just on the level of formal logic the stakes involved in professional sports – millions of dollars in prize money, endorsements etc for those at the top – fuels a win at all costs ethos, mirroring the emphasis on success that is so prevalent in society and sits at the apex of our cultural values.

Many serious athletes will view the taking of performance enhancing drugs as levelling the playing field. Moreover within the closed and highly pressurised world of competition, with its own values and understanding of what it takes to win, it will not be considered a big deal. Armstrong himself stated during his interview with Oprah that taking PEDs was as natural to him as putting air in his tires or water in his water bottle.

Viewed in this light it would be more shocking to find elite athletes who don’t or have never used them rather than those who do or have. Increasingly the challenge for those athletes who do use them is to remain one step ahead of advances in testing, though there are still sports, pro boxing in particular, in which the testing regime remains lax.

Ultimately Lance Armstrong’s sin lay in getting caught. His extraordinary success, magnified in his case by a successful battle with cancer, led to him becoming the prisoner of a public which demands that its sporting heroes jump higher, run faster, punch harder, and cycle faster while conforming to a level of moral purity and rectitude rendered impossible in a culture in which success and human virtue are considered two sides of the same coin.

Lance Armstrong’s achievement in winning the Tour de France seven times still stands as a remarkable feat worthy of the admiration and respect. More importantly, it is high time there was an honest conversation on the use of performance enhancing drugs in sport.



Reading the London Olympics opening ceremony


I’m not so sure Danny Boyle’s expected establishment gong is as much of a dead cert as pundits assume now we’ve had a chance to unpack the movie director’s critical state-of-the-nation London Olympics narrative. Last night’s £27m opening extravaganza temporarily won me over from furious cynicism following the games’ hijacking by Locog’s pet corporations and their civil rights clampdown.

I should have realised — trust the creatives. The CREATIVES, not the crude showmen who might have turned in a vapid series of set pieces going no-where. I’m sorry I misjudged you Danny — the boy done good, not forgetting his writer, Frank Cottrell-Boyce . This ceremony may have begun with a bucolic paradise with peasants tending their flocks but it ended with a vast setting sun as troglodyte primitives danced it into extinction.

Among the crowd-pleasers were woven some awesome subversive elements. Our unique selling points as a nation may be our musical back-catalogue, James Bond and the Queen, but even these were nicely handled. After watching Her Maj parachute into the stadium, I was hoping she might turn out to be the mystery cauldron igniter, maybe kicking a flaming football into the target, but Boyle had far more democratic plans for his climax.

He started with Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a benign engineer kicking off the industrial revolution before top-hatted capitalists (reminiscent of the ones in Eisenstein’s Strike) mess it up, tearing up the turf and turning the peasants off the land.

Branagh recites Caliban’s speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

As some have noticed, this is what Caliban says just before he tries to kill “an imperial innovator who took away his island”. Hmm, I wonder what Boyle is saying here.

Filling the stadium with five huge chimneys and factories and foundries to the sound of 1,000 drummers, we’re reminded that British power came from its industrial (r)evolution and the people who laboured in it. Of course, most of yer actual working class were working their arses off on stage for free, not sitting in the comfy seats they couldn’t afford.

But they were represented, hammering drums and metal, actually making things, while the tool-free capitalists worked thin air, much as they do with their banking tricks.

What they eventually end up with is the forging of the five rings of the Olympic symbol (yeah, the one we’re all banned from using even though we paid for most of it) rising above the audience like something hellish out of Mordor.

A parade of Windrush immigrants, 1960s cultural explosion (Beatles), cockneys and the ordinary people who helped make Britain, made the most of a diverse range of the population and ensured they weren’t rendered invisible. Boyle might have had an eye on Brecht who asked, “Who built the seven gates of Thebes?”.

However, it was the NHS segment that gave me the most squeeing pleasure as Boyle stuck it to Richard Branson and the privatisers. Melding the NHS and children’s literature, a battalion of nurses and doctors wheeled in hospital beds occupied by children (two to a bed — how it will look when the Tories get through with it).

A childcatcher (Maggie Thatcher?), a terrifyingly oversized Voldemort and assorted monsters (coalition creeps and Big Biz) harry the children while NHS staff attempt to fight them off.

Best of all, who did Danny choose to read during this scene? None other than JK Rowling herself, not only creator of the monstrous Voldemort and most successful commercial British writer, but famously a supporter of the welfare state who sends her own children to state schools. What’s more, she doesn’t avoid tax on her vast fortune but spreads it out. Unlike certain others now running the nation. Danny, this leftie salutes you.

Rowling read from J M Barrie’s Peter Pan. J M Barrie donated the income from his book to children’s hospitals.

And the music to accompany this warning to the forces of evil to get their mitts off our NHS? Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Significance? Tubular Bells was the phenomenal seller in the early 1970s which made Branson’s Virgin empire (he even named one of his Virgin America Airlines planes “Tubular Belle”). Branson’s Virgin, now scheming to run the PRIVATISED NHS SERVICE, including children’s healthcare!!! Kudos, Danny!

Also noted: national hero in his own head, Tony Blair, who’s been jonesing for inclusion in the Olympics all week and is looking to carve up the NHS with his Mee Healthcare company, didn’t even get a mention.

But the CND did, its symbol formed out of multi-cultural dancers — including some disabled — to a musical medley of our greatest pop and rock hits.

As did Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web.

Abide With Me was sung to an Anish Kapoor-influenced dying sun, a reference to Boyle’s movie Sunshine. The song is not only used as the rugby anthem and at FA Cup finals, but it’s sung at the funerals of miners. Or mines. Or our entire productivity and everything we’ve known. It’s part elegy, part call-to-arms to protect what’s being destroyed by a rapacious elite.

After the athletes paraded in, the event ended with a spectacular cauldron-lighting ceremony, carried out, not by a tired old sleb, but by the next generation of athletes: seven young men and women.

Rupert Murdoch tweeted that it was ‘a little too politically correct’. At least he wasn’t as crudely reactionary as the Tory who complained about multi-cultural representation and was buried in an avalanche of tweets.

Meanwhile, outside the Olympic Park, the Critical Mass bike protest was being kettled and intimidated — so unlike Beijing which British commentators never tire of sneering at. The furious cynicism is still there for Dow, McDonalds, Coke, G4S and the rest of the greedy tax-avoiding exploiting bastards (only £700m out of the £9.3 bn cost is funded by the sponsors), but the performers and athletes are the stars of the show from now on.

Here’s one gem I missed from Alex Wolff in Sports Illustrated: “Somewhere in the cacophony of last night, during what might have been the world’s largest Twitter storm, this nugget emerged: Hey Jude was No. 1 on the charts the day Smith and Carlos raised their fists — and that single’s B-side was Revolution.”

Andy Murray’s Cry Fest and the Politics of the Olympics

What is it about sport that produces such emotional scenes as Andy Murray’s cry fest on the Centre Court at Wimbledon after losing the men’s singles final to Roger Federer?

The collective feeling of empathy for the young Scot was palpable among the 15,000 spectators in attendance, who throughout the match willed him on as if their own fortunes were inextricably linked to his.

In fact, untold thousands throughout the country lived vicariously through Murray for the two weeks of Wimbledon, glued to their television sets as Britain’s best men’s tennis player in many a decade battled his way to his first Wimbledon final. No matter that at 25 the Scot is already worth a cool 24 million quid and that many of those watching were probably struggling to afford the annual TV License. For people up and down the country, regardless of background or class, Andy Murray was their hero, who for two short weeks gave them something to believe in, providing a brief escape from reality in the process.

It is this unrivalled power to unite which gives sport its mass spectator appeal. The day after losing the men’s single final, topping it off with emotional scenes that gripped the nation’s heart, every mainstream newspaper vied to laud Murray, plastering pictures of him in tears across both their front and back pages.

With the nation plunged into the deepest economic crisis since the 1930s, with more and more revelations of endemic corruption on the part of society’s economic and political elite, you might think we would have more important things to get emotional about than a tennis tournament. But, no, it appears the combination of momentary escape, diversion, and the pure honest endeavour of an elite multimillionaire sportsman exerts a far greater pull on the nation’s heart strings than a welter of moral platitudes by politicians, the very people charged with the responsibility of getting us out of this mess.

Psychologists have long understood the power of mass spectator sport to produce a temporary palliative and unite people around something considered noble and honest in an otherwise ignoble and dishonest society. The justice inherent in two individuals or teams competing on equal terms under equal conditions for a prize taps into a sense of egalitarianism that resides within all of us. It helps us makes sense of the world, ushering in a semblance of order out of the chaos that is the reality for an increasing number.

Politicians, dictators and emperors as far back as Antiquity have known this all too well, which is why they have and continue to exert themselves in jumping on the bandwagon of major sporting events. From the Romans came the phrase ‘bread and circuses’ as a way to satisfy an otherwise restive population with grand spectacles in the form of gladiatorial games. This enabled the greed and corruption of the elite to go unchecked.

The 1936 Olympic Games organized by the Nazis gave Hitler a platform from which to further exalt his notion of the racial superiority of the Aryan race. Indeed, it was at the 1936 games that the concept of the Olympic torch relay was introduced, one titbit of sporting trivia that the organisers of the 2012 Games won’t be sharing as the Olympic torch currently wends its way towards London through England’s green and pleasant land.

At Centre Court for the men’s singles final we had the usual array of politicians and royals in attendance. They know the PR value of being see to be associated with the Herculean efforts of the nation’s sporting heroes. In the case of Andy Murray, a Scot, it was hard to escape the subtext contained in the attendance of prime minister David Cameron and Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond, each clearly hoping to extract as much political capital from Murray’s success with a referendum on Scottish independence looming. Indeed, the government even went so far as to raise the Scottish Saltire above Downing Street for the occasion, a cheap attempt at burnishing its pro-Scotland credentials for the day.

As the comedian Bob Monkhouse once said, ‘If you can fake sincerity the rest is easy’.

As for those rich mummies otherwise known as the royals, their attendance, as it is at ever major sporting or cultural event, is designed to exude an aura of calm and stability, even while the majority of us are being fleeced by the banks, the government, and experiencing our lives collapsing around us.

Anyone who tries to maintain that politics has no place in sport is delusional. Sport is indisputably political and always has been. The upcoming Olympic Games in London will be an opportunity for the government, politicians, multinational corporations, and the establishment in general to bask in the reflected glory of Britain’s top athletes. Does anybody really think they’re going to let it pass?

This is why it is my greatest hope that the Olympic Games in London are a disaster. I want to see torrential rain for the duration, gale force winds, and controversy leaving their mark. I want to see the Olympic flame go out, David Beckham and Seb Coe struck down with flu, and Britain come bottom of the all important medals table.

The Olympics are nothing more than an exercise in national propaganda on the part of the nation’s so-called elite, and anything which discredits them and their interests is fine by me.

As for the athletes, let’s hope we see at least one with the courage of a John Carlos or Tommie Smith, who during the 1968 Games in Mexico used the medals ceremony to register a protest against injustice which travelled around the world and has inspired and endured since.


A Tribute to Muhammad Ali

Today is the 70th birthday of Muhammad Ali. Sadly, it will probably be his last.

‘Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?’

‘smokin’ Joe Frazier

Former heavyweight boxing champion, Joe Frazier, who it was recently revealed had been battling liver cancer, has died.

Rightly considered one of the best heavyweights of all time, Frazier’s life and career will forever be defined by his epic rivalry with Muhammad Ali and the trilogy of fights they had in the seventies, which culminated in the ‘Thrilla In Manila’ in 1975, considered by many to be the greatest heavyweight contest in the history of the sport.

Frazier never forgave Ali for the cruel way he taunted him when they were rivals, taunts which reached a particular low point when Ali produced a toy gorilla on TV and began calling it Joe and punching it in front of the camera. Ali’s merciless ridiculing of Frazier was made worse by the fact that when Ali was stripped of his title and his boxing license due to his stance over the war in Vietnam, Frazier was one of the very few who helped him out with money.

Ali later apologised for the way he’d taunted his greatest rival, but Frazier has remained bitter.

Frazier had the heart of a lion and fought anyone at anytime. This is made more significant when you consider that he fought during the greatest era of heavyweight boxing against the likes of Ali, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Jimmy Ellis, Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena.

Short for a heavyweight, Frazier developed a unique style to take advantage of his height and physical attributes. It involved him coming in low bobbing and weaving to avoid his opponent’s punches, before unleashing his trademark body shots and left hook. He was known in the ring for never taking a backward step.

He remained in his adopted home town of Philadelphia after he retired from the sport, where he ran his own gym and slept in a room above.

The world of boxing and sport in general has lost a true legend.

Your Boys Took a Hell of a Beating

Vi er best i verden! Vi er best i verden! Vi har slått Australia 3-1 i cricket!! Det er aldeles utrolig! Vi har slått Australia! Australia, kjempers fødeland. Cate Blanchett, Allan Border, Errol Flynn, Barry Humphries, Ned Kelly, Don Bradman, Kylie Mynogue–vi har slått dem alle sammen. Vi har slått dem alle sammen.

“Julia Gillard can you hear me? Julia Gillard: Your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took a hell of a beating!”

“We are the best in the world! We are the best in the world! We have beaten Australia 3-1 in cricket!! It is completely unbelievable! We have beaten Australia! Australia, birthplace of giants. Cate Blanchett, Allan Border, Errol Flynn, Barry Humphries, Ned Kelly, Don Bradman, Kylie Mynogue –we have beaten them all. We have beaten them all.

“Julia Gillard can you hear me? Julia Gillard: Your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took a hell of a beating!”

Sunshine in Sydney

Start of play was delayed for an hour by rain, but they have been playing for about ten minutes now. Quite exciting. Entrance was free today, and it seems the crowd are mainly England supporters.

James Anderson is mobbed after striking in Australia's second innings

Jonathan Agnew and Vic Marks on BBC radio have been discussing what is the best approach when they appear afterwards to comment on ABC, Australian TV. They decided that being mildly patronising and a bit condescending was the best way for an Englishman to handle the Aussies in the context of an England test win in Australia. Hilariously, ABC have been running a competition where viewers can win a bat signed by the whole Australian team. As they say, you can always buy some sandpaper.

Tom Fordyce explains the scale of England’s achievement

Scores are being made that were thought impossible. Wickets are being taken at a pace that shouldn’t make logical sense. Scenes are unfolding that those of us lucky enough to witness are likely to be gushing about for years.

Four years ago at this ground, on the same day in the same month, England were being bowled out for 147 to seal an Ashes capitulation that could not have been more brutal or absolute. They were a shambles, a rudderless ship broken on the rocks and pulled apart by gleeful wreckers.

Not this time. As the shadows from the old green-roofed Members’ Pavilion stretched across the outfield on Wednesday evening, Australia were reduced to 213-7, still 151 runs adrift of England’s mammoth 644, their best players slumped in the home dressing-room and the entire ground awash with the celebratory songs of the travelling hordes.

let’s sample some of the stats. England’s total was the highest they have ever made in Australia, bigger than the 636 compiled in the timeless Test here 82 years ago.

Their last five wickets alone put on 418, a new English record; it was the first time in Test history that the sixth, seventh and eighth-wicket partnerships have all produced 100 runs.

The tourists have now scored nine centuries in the series, more than they’ve ever achieved before in the Ashes, become only the third team in history to total more than 500 four times in a Test series and had Australia toiling in the field for more than 800 overs.

England’s batsmen have made so much hay they could feed the field of the Grand National.

On Thursday it was Matt Prior’s turn to harvest the runs, but Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann reaped full benefit too. The England supporters here in their thousands thought that was fun, but that was before Australia started batting.

The pitch is flat. You don’t total 644 if it’s a spitting turner. For Australia to then lose seven wickets for 171 said everything about the gulf in class and confidence between these two sides.

Having found it almost impossible to get an England wicket, Australia found new and remarkable ways to give theirs away.

Shane Watson has never been the most reliable between the wickets. His calling had already contributed to the run-outs of Simon Katich in the first over at Adelaide and Phillip Hughes in Melbourne, but those were by mere feet. This was the entire length of the pitch.

The expression on Watson’s face summed up Australia’s series: disbelief, pain, embarrassment. A few hours later, Mitchell Johnson was making the same slow journey from wicket to pavilion, gone for a golden duck in such ignominious circumstances that it felt rude to watch.

Johnson has been tormented by the Barmy Army throughout the series, that rather naughty song about his bowling echoing round the rafters from MCG to SCG. “We want Mitch!” they chanted as he walked to the crease, chin on chest, eyes downcast.

You could almost smell the bloodlust. When Chris Tremlett trampled his stumps a second later, the roof almost came off the Victor Trumper Stand.

Always a downbeat character, a maudlin look never far from his face, Johnson has undergone a prolonged character demolition in the last six weeks. You think he’d be kicking himself, but with his accuracy he’d probably miss.

England Dominate in Sydney

Alastair Cook

Extraordinary action in Sydney overnight. Cook and Bell were a mighty partnership, and this must surely mark the end of an era for Australian cricket.

Fifth Ashes Test: Australia 280 v England 488 for 7 (stumps, day three). England could even win this in four days.