Vive Le Tour: French Press Reaction A Bit (Arm)Strong

I got sent a series of articles today from our cycling correspondent which referred to the end of Le Tour from a French perception. I’m not naïve enough to believe that the French press represents the populist view of the French public but it does, nevertheless, give one pause for thought.

If we look back on some of the world’s undeniable sporting greats (and this list might suffer from a gender bias and recency effects): Steve Redgrave, Michael Schumacher, Michael Johnson, Pete Sampras and Lance Armstrong, they are roundly criticized for being (variously) obsessive, stubborn, arrogant, control-freaks, miserable and selfish. Is it not obvious that this commonality demonstrates the side effects of being a champion? These personality traits are a corollary to success and represent the abilities these (admittedly male-brained) athletes use to control the environment around them to suppress the variability, to focus on the system of winning and be acutely in-tune with cause-effect-implication. Their performances are so magnificent simply because they have learnt to limit their exposure to anything that is apparently unconnected to their next event.

Lance’s illustrated his contempt for the ephemera of press opinion about his inovlvement with drugs and the sheer unhelpfulness of it to his race preparation. His relationships were formed not with the PR men and journalists that parasitically cling to Le Tour but to the riders in US Postal or the Discovery Channel and his rivals in the peloton. These were relationships worth understanding and, in some cases, exploiting.

In 1998 Le Tour had hit the wall. No amount of food sachets and isotonic fluids seemed to lift its broken body. The Festina team had been riddled with doping scandals and the press equally riddled with the fallout. Lance, the cancer victim in the maillot jaune, provided hope, a rebirth and vision of human endeavor against scientific certainty. That this spirit of competitiveness then proved itself a subsequent 6 times is without equal in the sporting arena. However, the reasons for vilifying this achievement are numerous and complex.

As The Times writes: “…you will not find too many bemoaning his departure. Indeed, they will be queuing up to drive him to Charles de Gaulle airport and breathing collective sighs of relief to waft his private jet back to Texas for the final time…

Chris Boardman, evidently smarting from the recent loss of his 1hr record and the knowledge that he never made a serious impact on the world’s greatest cycling event, has said he wants to see more of a race. This nonsensical viewpoint is borne of our questionable desire to maintain that “it’s the taking part that counts”. Witness the middle-class hysteria for Tim Henman’s valiant struggle to reach a Wimbledon final. Surely a race in Le Tour is guaranteed, does Boardman believe that second, third, the green jersey and King of the Mountains are all just handed out? There are races and victories daily, sometimes hourly, on those French roads. Because one man dominates the ultimate prize does not mean the rot sets in around him.

Armstrong’s legacy is not just a sporting one. TV rights have increased five-fold, sponsorship and Tour visibility is on the rise, the momentum he created that lifted the race from its nadir will Livestrong in the mountains and flatlands of Europe. The peloton is peppered with new nations and old and one senses a great deal of bitterness stems from the disappointment in the French achievements.

This great malaise, the Gallic sulk has deeper origins. From the defeat in the Olympics, back to the no vote in the referendum and the fallout over the Iraq war, France is feeling a bit sorry for itself. The president himself personifies this bitterness and although he’s not commented on the twenty years of French failure in their flagship cycle race it’s pretty evident that there’s a collective resentment amongst certain sectors of French society that other countries seem to be getting all the good stuff. Sad as this is, it will pass. The French demonstrated in the Solent that their military might still regularly eclipses ours and their foreign and immigration policy, championed by the likes of the enigmatic and eloquent Dominic de Villepin has kept them largely free of Islamic terrorism. Before we feel too sorry for the French and their sporting endeavors, let’s not forget their rugby and football team - now dispatching us with consummate ease in games we invented.

In short, let us acknowledge Lance Armstrong as one of sport’s greatest achievers, as a consummate professional, a human being and a staunch advocate of one of the finest endurance races in the world sensitive to the European way of life. Accept that Lance Armstrong’s domination was both awe inspiring in its persistence and gloriously effective in it’s ability to heal a damaged event. The race lives on without him and lives stronger because of him.

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