Part I of two articles on the Tour de France and the cynicism of the sports media*
By TONY SEED
cynic a. & n. …. one who sarcastically doubts or despises human sincerity and merit; hence ~ISM
(2) n. (f. L f. Gk kunikos (kuon kunos dog, nickname for Cynic…)
ONE of the recurring adjectives sports journalists use to describe their own outlook is cynical. They seem to wear it as a hard-boiled badge of honour. They banter about it amongst themselves on the 24-hour sports talk shows. For years they joked about drugs in sports, unwillingly to take a stand. Athletes who spoke out honestly with a real concern for the direction of their sport received nothing but opprobrium for their trouble.
Cynicism is one of the constant weapons against genuine sport, the access of people to sport and recreation as their legitimate right, and the human factor in athletics and life. The citadels of cynicism are the powerful sports monopoly media: the Toronto Globe and Mail and National Post, Rogers Sportsnet and TSN (The Sports Network), all owned by giant corporations. Cynicism is an instrument of the commodification of sport, where everything excellent, good, fresh and even Canadian is generally disparaged. An athlete loses a race and some sports writers start a “discussion” as to whether or not he or she is a choker. A Canadian Olympian loses a close contest in which he or she was favoured and a tsunami of “discussion” overwhelms the nation as to whether or not Canadian athletes are “chokers.” Any athlete who sets an unprecedented record must be on something. An athlete is traded away by a Toronto professional franchise and the polls are set into motion as to whether fans should boo him in his first return match in Hogtown. Cynicism is the kiss of death of socially responsible journalism and sport. I do not recall ever meeting a serious journalist or athlete who was cynical.
Take cycling, which has consistently been ranked one of the country’s top three participation sports, and is experiencing a period of growth and popularity. Membership in officially sanctioned road-cycling clubs in the USA has risen more than 20 per cent. Bicycle shops nationwide report higher business, with a distinct spike every summer around the time of the Tour de France.
Long a marginal sport in North America, cycling nevertheless needs help, both as sport and as recreation, especially in Canada. With two honourable exceptions, this Everest of sporting events has been devoid of high performance Canadian participants, let alone Canadian winners.Those were both in the 1980s: the first Canadian to wear the Yellow Jersey at the Tour de France was Alex Stieda in 1985.
Steve Bauer, the silver medal winner at the LA Olympics in road cycling, wore the yellow jersey for eight days in 1988, finishing fourth. In 1990, he wore the yellow jersey for ten days, finishing tenth.
Since then, cycling has played out like soccer. The USA which failed to qualify for the World Cup in Mexico is now ranked sixth in the world and Canada, which competed in 1986, ranks 87th in the world. The two countries have, with the exception of mountain biking, gone dramatically different ways. The American cycling team, which captured eight medals at Los Angeles, was doped up. A crop of Americans finished in the top 20 in the 2005 Tour de France. Not a single Canadian competed. But any aspiring Canadian road cyclist – such as Michael Barry – has to go to Europe to earn his livelihood.
Despite a modest increase in popular cycling inside the congestion zone of our cities, the greatest deterrent to ordinary cyclists is their (mostly accurate) perception that the roads are a hostile, dangerous place owing to the dominance of the carcinogenic car culture in North America, due to monopoly right. The cost of first class bicycles is another factor.
Socially responsible journalism could play a large and positive role in enlarging the access of the people to public space, building respect for cycling, in helping people in deciding to become physically active and healthier, and sometimes in determining what particular sports or recreational activities to take up.
Broadly based popular sports such as cycling, amateur baseball and college sports are starved of media attention in the ghetto called the sports pages.
When was the last time you saw topical and serious articles on cycling? On such mass amateur events as the Cabot Trail Relay Race in May, where up to 30 teams from all over North America circumnavigate the Trail, riding round the clock? On critical mass? In the NHL-Blue Jays’-NASCAR-NFL-NBA saturated Globe even its coverage of the daily and distinctly different stages of the Tour de France draws on wire service reports: Armstrong this, Armstrong that. Broadly based popular sports such as cycling, amateur baseball and college sports are starved of media attention in the ghetto called the sports pages.
* * *
ON THE EVE of the completion of one of the great sporting events and individual athletic achievements in the world, the Globe and Mail responded with coverage fluctuating between hagiography and cycnicsm, two poles of the same incoherent bourgeois world outlook. Four days before the final triumphant stage around the Arc de Triomphe of this year’s Tour de France, it published a paean by Chris Carmichael from Associated Press to the triumphalism of US technology and resources in competitive cycling. Then for Saturday, the penultimate day, it assigned sportswriter Michael Grange the task of scribling a feature article on Lance Armstrong’s seventh successive championship of the Tour de France – the 2,254-mile, 21-stage trip around France. With incredible cynicism, Grange announced that the unprecedented achievement was something not to be believed and beyond credibility. 
It was like being told that, after watching with your own eyes Ben Johnson setting a world record in the 100 metre dash at the 1988 Summer Olympics Seoul Korea, he did not really win the race. He did win that race; it was the gold he lost. Ben Johnson, drugs or not, Hardial Bains once pointed out, was the fastest man in the world.
This article is not a defence of Lance Armstrong, one of the high-profile commercial elite athletes today who, together with professional sports and big-money, televised spectator events, occupy most space in the sports media. A responsible journalist would investigate this relationship and the role of governments, the neo-liberal global monopolies and sport governing bodies pushing this phenomena – including doping – to the detriment of mass physical culture and the honour and integrity of athletes.
The heart of Grange’s attack, however, is to recycle known doping allegations against the athlete himself, Armstrong, none of them original. This comes seven years after one of the greatest scandals in modern sports history, the revelations of doping in the 1998 Tour de France. And last year several teams, sponsored by some of Europe’s biggest corporations and banks (Festina and the Dutch team TVM, whose profits increased by 25 per cent), were again implicated. No less than U.S. sport, European cycling is awash in peddling, vice, drugs, doping and consumerism from top to bottom. This particular question deserves serious, critical journalism. But Grange mentions none of this context and developments. Grange, whose regular beat is the U.S. National Basketball Association, instead launches a cheap attack on the figure of Armstrong and by implication the Tour de France based on gossip and snide innuendo.
Once verifiable fact is thrown out, anything goes in bourgeois journalism. The truth is what works. Grange openly admits his unsubstantiated assertions are “unproven” “allegations.” That is to say, he is a self-confessed rumour-monger and follower of the “where there’s smoke, there’s fire“ school. Grange begins by setting up the so-called “myth” (“a first-name-only legend”, “a true-life fable”) of Lance Armstrong – as if it fell from the skies fully-blown – with the aim of exposing “a man with his faults.” To paraphrase: the gods of the sports media first make mythic those they wish to destroy. Grange then bombards the fruit of his own imagination:
“But Armstrong’s story isn’t quite so simple and the arc of his narrative is not quite so seamless.”
Grange “objectively” arranges one by one the different accusations ranging the gamut from doping to a failed marriage and a relationship with an American singer-song writer, Sheryl Crow. His sources are two other writers, a lawyer for a former Armstrong assistant who is suing him, and the wife of a former team-mate; he does not interview anyone from Armstrong’s team, let alone the accused.
Grange counterposes to the “legend” of Armstrong yet another sports journalist as his anti-hero: “no one has done more to poke holes in the Armstrong myth.” He thereby introduces to his narrative David Walsh, chief sportswriter for the Sunday Times of London,
“who has pursued what he feels to be the true story about the American star with a drive and determination that matches anything Armstrong has managed on his bike.
“It was Walsh who first detailed the intimacy of Armstrong’s ties with Dr. Michele Ferrari, who guided Armstrong’s training during his first six Tour victories even as Ferrari was being investigated in Italy for sports-related doping offences, though not as they related to his relationship with Armstrong.”
Are we nearer the truth? Some doctors for the corporate-sponsored teams have been heavily implicated in doping, in cycling as in other sports, Dr. Ferrari was convicted in October 2004 of sports fraud and illegally acting as a pharmacist, given a six-month suspended sentence, but was acquitted on charges he distributed doping products. This is overlooked in Grange’s gossipy, tell-all account. Armstrong, who had worked with Ferrari since 1999, dropped him after his conviction. It is rather like Osama bin Laden is a Muslim, hence Islam is an evil religion; guilt by association. The fact cited in this false argument may ultimately be proven or it may represent doubtful judgment but it is neither a crime to associate with a discredited sports doctor nor does it prove anything but a preconceived notion and a propagandistic technique.
But for this hard-eyed journalist, as he works up his story, the hope perhaps lies in the idea that the higher ideals of the anti-hero, the sports journalist – with his “drive and determination that matches anything Armstrong has managed” – himself emerging from many trails of personal strength and courage, will make him fly and “nail” Armstrong.
Truth is placed on the same plane as opinion – independent and outside of objective reality. What we have here is that fashionable deconstructionism of the postmodernist, for whom principle, the standards of scientific evidence, and the recognition of objective reality simply do not exist.
The misattribution of qualities consistent with an overall image, and the dismissal of information that is dissonant, is sometimes called “the halo effect.” The “balanced” journalism espoused by American pragmatism seemingly sees the merits and weighs the validity of competing beliefs by asking, “What differences would they make?” Truth is placed on the same plane as opinion – independent and outside of objective reality. What we have here is that fashionable deconstructionism of the postmodernist, for whom principle, the standards of scientific evidence, and the recognition of objective reality simply do not exist. It is all in one’s head, the subjective, the virtual reality that the neo-cons are so fond of as they remake the world in the image of the USA. Postmodernism, someone once said, is like a peacock: it may look beautiful but it cannot fly.
Postmodernism, someone once said, is like a peacock: it may look beautiful but it cannot fly.
The real hero, for Grange, becomes this British sports journalist, fellow member of the fraternity, who has a “feeling” that he is pursuing the “true story”:
“Most damaging (to Armstrong), Walsh is the co-author of LA Confidentiel: Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong, a 385-page book that raised a number of troubling questions about exactly how Armstrong came from near death to the peak of a sport that has long been closely associated with performance-enhancing drugs.”
Has Grange even read the book? It was only published in France in July 2004, where it was massively serialized in Le Monde and L’Express. Over a year later, the French edition is still the sole edition (ISBN 2846751307), a fact that should have made Grange wary. David Walsh admitted in 2004 his evidence was “circumstantial.” In other words, it proved nothing. The questions he raises are not new questions. Grange does not mention Walsh’s co-author, Pierre Ballester, a reporter whose departure from the French sports daily L’Equipe, owned by the Amaury Group, also parent to the Amaury Sports Organization, which runs the Tour de France, was controversial. He ignored the fact that the Sunday Times, Walsh’s employer, which published some of the allegations, then removed the offending article from its website. Nor that that Walsh’s book was opportunistically published less than three weeks before the 2004 tour, just as Grange’s article was published the day before the completion of the 2005 tour, when public attention is at the maximum. The sports section of the Globe and Mail was itself tracking the significant rise in TV audience for the Tour de France, being shown twice daily on The Outdoor Life Network in North America, doubtlessly competing with the cable sports networks associated with BellGlobemedia.
The next sentence is the dead giveaway:
“While failing to find the proverbial smoking gun, in interviews with Armstrong’s personal masseur, former teammates, a former team doctor and others, Walsh’s book draws countless associations between Armstrong and banned drugs, something the American cyclist has always denied. He in turn has named Walsh in two legal actions related to the book, which has so far been published only in France.”
We could go further, as Grange is paraphrasing statements repeatedly made by Walsh and Ballester on velonews.com, who readily admitted that “There’s no smoking gun. It’s all circumstantial evidence.”  So, if what most people understand to be a “smoking gun” is not a “smoking gun”, what does the Globe and Mail consider evidence against Armstrong: “countless associations.” And there you have it. What we have is a lot of gossip and guilt by association presented as sports journalism. What we do not have is verifiable fact.
One neither gets the story exactly right nor shows “good faith” in researching and telling it. Multiple “accusations” here are unprovable or simply outright nasty. With a handful of words Grange dismissively notes that Armstrong has “always denied” the “countless associations between Armstrong and banned drugs,” as if it is a mere difference of opinion. On 30 June 2005 Armstrong submitted blood and urine samples to the French Ministry of Youth and Sport, as the “random” selection apparently selected the defending champion. Tim Maloney at cyclingnews.com quoted unnamed sources that the test was Armstrong’s sixth out-of-competition drug check this season. Another source, quoting the French doping laboratory, says there have been over 150 tests performed on Armstrong since the late 1990s. It cannot be so arbitrarily ignored that he has passed both scheduled and surprise doping tests on this many occasions. These tests are not mentioned by the Globe and Mail, nor are the doping controversies in the Tour de France. Never having tested positive, as the saying goes, does not prove that doping did not happen. Likewise, winning races is not alone a guarantee or proof that a rider or team doped. Clean cycling and success are not mutually exclusive.
If an athlete as successful and well-off as Lance Armstrong can be subjected to such a reign of terror by the media, accused of being a drug addict without fact nor trial, what hope does the amateur athlete have? If the International Cycling Union provides the athletes who compete in such events drug tests and appeal procedures of less than certain validity, then there is an obvious need to eradicate such procedures and replace them with others that are more humane, rational and fair.
More significantly, no concern is expressed for the health of the athletes nor is the role of the powerful corporate sponsors in Europe and the United States and the competing rivalries amongst these monopoly capitalists investigated. The athlete is incidental. Riders cover more than 2,000 miles in three weeks at an average speed of around twenty-eight miles per hour. It is an athletic event that actually harms the athletes’ bodies. (Racers cannot consume enough food to replace the 6,000 or so calories burned off by each day’s stage. Most finish the race with less muscle mass than they began with.) Professional cycling takes such a savage toll on its riders that studies show that the life expectancy of a professional cyclist is barely more than fifty years. 
By focusing on the individual, this slanderous article borders on defamation of character and a cause for public humiliation and embarrassment, but Grange bravely passes to Exhibit B, “Lance is such a litigious guy”:
“Armstrong has 11 lawyers working on eight cases in three different countries.”
The litigation is attributed as all due to a quirk of the cyclist’s Mafiosi personality:
“Armstrong’s penchant for suing those who cross him.”
If Armstrong is innocent, as he claims, why shouldn’t he resort to the law, to demand liability for the crime of defamation and slander, to clear his name and honour? Or, for the Globe and Mail, whose penchant for criminalizing political activists at home and liberation movements abroad is second to none, is that too a crime?
On the other hand, Grange exculpates his fellow sports journalist Walsh because he follows a higher ideal:
“The Irish author remains unbowed. He says his pursuit of the truth surrounding Armstrong is informed in part by his passion for journalism a close friendship with Paul Kimmage, a former Irish professional cyclist who wrote about the drug culture in the sport in the 1980s; and in part the by the memory of his oldest son, John.
“The 12-year-old was killed riding his bike in 1995. ‘My son was a great guy and he had a courage that I admire greatly, and an ability to ask questions,’ Walsh says.
This may very well be, but so what? Later, Grange reiterates, quite incoherently:
“While allegations about Armstrong’s doping are unproven, his long ride in the public eye has yielded a fuller picture of him.”
Without a painter, a “long ride” in or out of “the public eye” yields a blank canvas, nothing more nor less. Grange openly admits that
“allegations about Armstrong’s doping are unproven.”
So if “allegations …unproven” do not fly in the court, it will be “a fuller picture of him” that may well do Armstrong in.
Grange then goes on to dredge up Exhibit C, the cyclist’s family life, to “yield a fuller picture.” We have the “pursuit of truth” and a “passion for journalism” but neither objective fact nor truth nor journalism but the status quo of recycled opinions, rumours and assertions “about Armstrong’s doping (which) are unproven.”
Is the aim of such “countless associations” to sow ad hominem doubt about Armstrong’s credibility and, most importantly, his motives in life and in sport, especially as concerns he may be at the heart of a doping conspiracy? Whatever the outcome of the expensive legal actions against the authors of LA Confidentiel, it is tempting to say that the damage has already been done and Armstrong will have to live with the stench and wounds that will take a long time to heal. The book has not transformed Armstrong into a fallen monument, as evidenced by his tour throughout France this summer.
But no attack on an elite athlete in the international cycling panorama can leave his respectability, image, credibility and independence unscathed. The gossip carries on.
Grange prominently mentions Armstrong’s girlfriend, singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow. Now Ms Crow is publicly associated with US Senator John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, and performed for him in Boston in his final celebration on the evening of November 4th during the US elections. Sen. Kerry followed this year’s Tour de France and, in an interview on The Outdoor Life Network, thought Armstrong well-suited to political life. George Hincapie, Armstrong’s longtime team-mate, told the New York Times he thought Armstrong might well run for governor of Texas.
Armstrong, who comes from a poor working class background, did not support the invasion of Iraq by his new friend and fellow Texan George W Bush, abetted by his stooges in London, Madrid and Ottawa. Armstrong was quoted by The Times in 2004 about his views on Iraq: “I don’t like what the war has done to our country, to our economy. My kids will be paying for this war for some time to come. George Bush is a friend of mine and just as I say it to you, I’d say to him, ‘Mr President, I’m not sure this war was such a good idea’, and the good thing about him is he could take that.” The Globe and Mail heavily backed Bush’s war on Iraq and faithfully reprinted the full text and fictional infographics of US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s “dossier” on behalf of that illegal and immoral war, which no one can accuse Armstrong of doing. Armstrong spoke against that war as a human being, as a parent with children, and he did so with honour and morality.
In other words, the Globe and Mail presents a string of “countless associations” without principle. They may, or may not, add up, if we were to follow the technique of Walsh and Grange.
So, if there was no “smoking gun” and only “countless associations” which “yield a fuller picture”, what is this murky exercise all about?
This type of attack journalism should itself be considered to be a crime.
The character assassination carried by the Globe & Mail and the modus operandi of its journalism mirrors that of any dirty superpower who deems itself above the rule of law and justifies assassination of its political opponents as judge, jury and executioner. It is premised on the mediaeval dictum of “Guilty Until Proven Innocent.” This type of attack journalism should itself be considered to be a crime. The monopoly media imposes a law from the sphere of international affairs to the sphere of sport that is outside international law (and outside the laws of the game); it has become a law unto itself. Propaganda is confused with information. The self-proclaimed purity and passion of the media’s investigators becomes the cynical pretext for a new corruption, of power without limit, accountability and responsibility.
This entire “no smoking gun” plus “countless associations” is reminiscent of the imperialist modus operandi of US Secretary of State Colin Powell who went before the United Nations on 5 February 2003 with his mendacious “dossier.” Powell also said he would not present a “smoking gun” but would describe the “evidence” he would present in the form of photographs of “mobile biological weapons installations as well as transcripts of overheard conversations among Iraqi officials” or what the US called “more points” “from which any sensible person can deduce that these people are hiding something.” Why all this? Obviously, in the case of Iraq, it was a sort of psychological warfare to paralyze people with doubt about the credibility of the Iraqi leadership, to sideline humanity from going into action against the impending war.
There is an alternative
And in the sports media? Sports and the elite athletes are presented as narcotized “entertainment,” above principles and the rule of law including the laws of the game. The sporting culture becomes reduced to such an extent that the masses of sports fans have no alternative but be apathetic couch potatoes of the spectacle without end, the equivalent of the political marginalization of the polity which is well underway. They are on the receiving end. When sport is tainted, when there is no alternative, why participate?
We have the identical disinformation aimed at intimidating people to accept the deliberate lowering of standards in sporting and political culture and the degradation of the norms of human civilization. Doubt is sown about the merit and purity of human accomplishment and the veracity of what one has observed with one’s own senses.
The legitimate question – why the rise of “a doping culture” in sport? – is never raised, and thus does not have to addressed. Monopoly right is defended and the athlete defamed. The presence of top officials at the head of the international sports governing bodies with little or no integrity, members of the leisure class who preside over the labour camp, is to be accepted. It is known that Hein Verbruggen, President of the UCI (International Cycling Union), knew about the circulation of EPO in the peloton as early as 1990, but did not encourage testing for it until 1995. For five years, the sums of money allocated by the UCI to anti-doping measures were only raised to 1.8 million francs [£180,000] out of a budget, over the same period, of 250 million francs [£25 million]. 
Willy nilly, the culprit becomes the individual elite athlete whose testicular cancer-ridden body metastasized and somehow won something seven times in succession. For the populace, angst reigns about the sphere of cycling and, by implication, high performance athletes and sport and recreation in general. One is led to believe that, as a matter of course, athletes who win or break records take drugs. Base passions are incited, gossip reigns, people are diverted and sidelined, rendered comatose and cheerleaders of the circus, spectators lining the route.
. . . human performance will always improve and new athletic records will continue to be set, as human society advances to higher and higher levels.
The ideological purpose of the cynical world outlook is to spread gloom and doom about the future in order to preserve the status quo and to suggest that human beings have reached their pinnacle within the present society and that no more significant progress can be made in any field, including athletic performance. On the contrary, human performance will always improve and new athletic records will continue to be set, as human society advances to higher and higher levels. The fraudulent insinuation that athletes such as the road cyclists can only exceed their limits through doping is both an attack on science, whose application is the main source of performance improvement, and a complete denial of the role of the human factor/social consciousness in bringing about human progress on any and all fronts.
. . . each cycling team composed of ten athletes from as many different nations and several different continents, expressing the capacity of human beings to accept virtually any intellectual or physical challenge . . . demanding athletes master the laws of nature, aerodynamics, gravity, velocity and the weight of their own bodies in a cooperatively organized, synchronized work and esprit de corps
Here one rapidly descends, it would seem, several stages in social evolution: from the most advanced – reflected in the advanced equipment, technique, nutrition, training and preparation as a result of the better application of scientific laws, which Armstrong and his team, known as the F-1 Group, has invested in, perfected and championed, with the great economic and technical resources of the United States at their disposal – to the sublime performance of the athletes in the Tour de France, each cycling team composed of ten athletes from as many different nations and several different continents, expressing the capacity of human beings to accept virtually any intellectual or physical challenge, from the eight per cent climbs of the Alps and Pyrenees to the individual and team time trial, demanding athletes master the laws of nature, aerodynamics, gravity, velocity and the weight of their own bodies in a cooperatively organized, synchronized work and esprit de corps – to the most backward: the reactionary and wasteful exploitation of human beings in the ruthless competition of commercial monopolies.
This is not journalism. It is the cynical digging up and recitation of preconceived, dogmatic and propagandistic assertions about reality with a devastating effect on healthy sport and recreation and human and social progress.
What is clear is that a serious struggle is ensuing over the Tour de France. The point isn’t to single out Grange; chauvinistic tour bashing seems to be an annual sport at the Globe with its fixation on US spectator sport. Any number of similar examples could be found: a Google search of “Lance Armstrong + doping” turns up 49,900 pages – just in the English language. Passions have been stirred. But who is financing the lawyers from both sides in all these court cases? What are the socio-economic factors and interests? Who has a material interest in the appropriation (or elimination) of the Tour de France? What is driving the coverage of the so-called sports media? Given the massive sums, media magnates, multinational sponsors, globalized TV, market share and inter-imperialist rivalries involved, perhaps there is another agenda at work.
“It sets a dangerous precedent to assume, as a matter of course, that athletes who win or break world records take drugs,” writes Richard Moore in the Scotsman. “And it serves not to clean up sport but to destroy it. As Michelle Verroken, until last year the head of the UK Sports Council’s anti-doping unit, once said, an ‘all-pervading cynicism would sound the death-knell of sport’.” 
There is an alternative. Partisans of sport must reject the cynicism and socially irresponsible journalism of the monopoly media as part of developing their own independent thinking and working out their stands. Sport, like Canada, demands modern thinking and democratic renewal.
* Part I of two articles. For Part II, see Tony Seed, “Is sportsmanship another un-American activity,” amateursport.com, June 11, 2006
1 Michael Grange, “LANCE ARMSTRONG Behind the myth, a man with his faults,” Globe and Mail, Saturday, July 23, 2005, Page S8
CHRIS CARMICHAEL, “Integrated technology brought Lance Armstrong to the top,” Associated Press, Wednesday, July 20, 2005
2 “Questioning the accuser – We speak with ‘LA Confidential’ Author David Walsh,” Cited: http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Lance-Armstrong) VeloNews.com
3 Robert Messenger, “Making the Grandest Tour,” New Criterion, Volume 22, Issue 10, June 2004, page 86.
4 Patrick Mignon, “The Tour de France and the Doping Issue ,” in Hugh Dauncey, Geoff Hare (eds.), The Tour de France, 1903-2003: A Century of Sporting Structures, Meanings, and Values (London: F. Cass, 2003), p. 234
5 Richard Moore, “Stop strong-arm tactics,” scotsman.com, June 20, 2004, http://sport.scotsman.com/other.cfm?id=701762004