Vintage Vino leaves a bad taste Posted 21st Aug
Vintage Vino leaves a bad taste
One of the weirdest things for me, when I participated in the Olympics, was waking up the day after the opening ceremony and venturing down to the dining hall to grab some food before a training session and seeing people with Olympic medals already hanging around their necks. It was a stark reminder that the show was absolutely underway. The overriding feeling when I saw them was one of jealousy. The tension was clearly gone from their faces and a white cloud of relief encapsulated them as they glided around with their new jewellery. “Bastards” I used to think, with a smile. We had a whole week of stress and pain ahead of us before even contemplating that feeling. You’d spend the rest of the week trying to ignore those relieved people as somehow they might take away your focus or increase the likelihood of your mind being on the prize rather than the present moment.
This is the first Olympics since Barcelona ’92 that I have been a spectator – I was involved in every Olympics since then, and I have to say that I am loving it. I am a big cycling fan. I love the Tour de France and all the pro classics races, so needless to say I was really looking forward to the men’s road race which was one of the first finals of the Games. Team GB – which was effectively the winning Team Sky from the Tour de France – were billed as favourites. The “Manx Missile”, Mark Cavendish was their trump card and they put all of their eggs in one basket to deliver him to the finish for the sprint. Other nations had a different plan and it was intriguing to see them working together to thwart the explosive beginning to Team GB’s Olympic campaign.
Approaching the last twenty five kilometers, a twenty man group were a minute in front of the British led chasing peloton. The lead group was stacked with some of the strongest cyclists in the world and it was looking ominous for the British. The lead group contained Swiss powerhouse, Fabian Cancellara and as they raced back to The Mall through Richmond Park, I was sure that he had the race in the bag. As with every sporting event, the Olympics being no exception, Lady Luck always plays her cards. Approaching a tight right hand turn, Cancellara went off the road and crashed hard – his Olympic hopes, along with a lot of his skin, ending up on the asphalt of Richmond Park.
From here the race was anybody’s. Fascinating Olympic stuff. There was a wide spread of nations in the twenty man group and the gold was up for grabs. An attack from two riders coming down Putney High Street saw the lead group splinter and these two got away to battle out for the win. As I was identifying the two riders, a sense of dread came over me. One of them was the controversial Kazakh, Alexandre Vinokourov, known in the cycling world as “Vino”. He is a tough athlete, no question. He is one of the most feared riders in the peloton and is known for his constant attacking. Vino is at the end of his career, this was his last race. I admire the way Vino races. He is fearless, charasmatic and animated. He is difficult to read and this air of producing the unexpected has carved his name out as both a winner and a personality in the cycling world.
Unfortunately, Vino is a convicted doper. He served a two year ban from 2007 to 2009 for receiving blood transfusions at the 2007 Tour de France. He was immediately kicked out of the race. Stories then began to emerge of a shady past involving Michele Ferrari, the Italian doctor who is currently banned for life from working with sportspeople. Tom Boonen, the Belgian cycling superstar who was also competing in the London road race was quoted in 2007 as saying “Vino is a dirty cheat, who should be banned for his whole lifetime”. These words were echoing in my brain on Saturday as I watched Vino battle it out with Rigoberto Uran of Columbia for the gold medal, at high speed through Knightsbridge and down towards the finish outside Buckingham Palace.
I didn’t want Vino to win. It brought to the fore my own contempt of doping and people who decide to cheat in the sporting arena. The Olympic road race was an epic event that lived up to it’s billing. It was raced to the death by the very best in the world. Vino, the canny racer that he is, outfoxed the Columbian in the final sprint to take Gold. I wanted to feel happy for him but I couldn’t. I wanted to feel happy for the millions of spectators who lined the route and watched on TV but I couldn’t. I thought about the likes of Tom Boonen and how he felt as he crossed the line seeing Vino as the winner. A newly crowned Olympic champion should be celebrated and lauded, not met with mixed emotions. The mixed emotions stem from Vino’s tag as convicted doper.
It forced me to re-examine my attitude toward dopers. If someone makes a concerted effort to cheat and gets caught, then I feel that person has forfeited his or her right to compete in elite level sport again. It is a tough stance but I feel that the punishment has to be harsh if people are really going to stop cheating. I feel there is little to be gained in allowing someone to cheat, give them a smack on the hand and a two year racing ban and then allow them to come back as if nothing ever happened.
Then I look at David Millar, the British rider, also in Saturday’s race, who cheated and served a two year ban, just like Vino. Since his return to the sport, Millar has been a staunch anti doping advocate, he has written a raw account of his experiences at the hands of a doping culture and really has sought redemption through sharing his experiences with other younger riders to steer them clear of doping. Millar is now an anti drug pioneer in a sport with a full-on doping history.
I admire what David Millar has done since he was convicted of doping. I think his true qualities as a person have come to the fore because he was caught and convicted. He accepted full responsibility and told the whole tragic story for the benefit of future cyclists. I truly believe that he is a clean rider now but I still feel that within the Olympic context, he forfeited his right to participation when he decided to dope.
I want to celebrate every Olympic winning performance. Vino raced like a champion last Saturday but I didn’t celebrate it. Doubt and suspicion should have no place in the Olympics and I think the only way to deter those who cheat is to hand down the toughest punishment possible if they are caught: life bans from Olympics and World Championships for the rest of their lives. The Olympics need to be tougher in this area if the uncomfortable silence from the crowd around the victory of a convicted cheat is going to be replaced by the spine tingling roar of support for a winner they can truly believe in.