Monday, January 14, 2013

Cycling Hall of Fame?

In a few days, Lance Armstrong's interview with Oprah will air where it's rumored he will confess to using performance enhancing drugs. Last week, the Baseball Writers Association of America did not vote a single player to the Hall of Fame. What's noteworthy about this occurrence is that it was the first time that Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa all appeared on the ballot, while other past stars of the 1990s and early 2000s remained on the ballot. Bonds broke the career home run record, while Clemens was dominant as a pitcher for two decades, including 7 Cy Young Awards, the most by any pitcher in history (7 Cy Youngs were not consecutive nor did they follow a cancer recovery, though...) It's hard to argue against these two players as at least being among the best players of their time, if not the best of all time, except for that one little thing: performance enhancing drugs. This whole instance got me to jokingly remark that it's funny that there's no cycling hall of fame. I know there are actually a few of them, but none seem to be as highly regarded as the Baseball Hall of Fame, where people come from all over the world (ok, more like from the US, maybe Canada and Latin America) to a tiny little town in upstate New York.
Instead, this just shows how tainted baseball was during that era, that NO player made it on.  It's not so much about Bonds or Clemens not making it in, but Craig Biggio, who doesn't have any specific ties to steroids like some of the others, but he played during the era and was definitely one of the best players. You can't really know one way or the other anymore. It has soured an entire generation of fans (and in this case, writers).  Some of the same thing is happening with cycling.  The devout fans of cycling will stay, but the days of every American actually knowing what the Tour de France is may soon be a thing of the past.  That's not even my primary concern though.  Instead, the question becomes "how do we fix this?"  I say this as a fan of baseball, cycling, and triathlon, as well as a former baseball player and current triathlete/cyclist, that we want a clean sport.
There is the story of Jonathan Vaughters, who quit cycling as a relatively young pro because he was tired of having to dope to be a part of a team.  He now runs his own team with a fervent anti-doping stance because he doesn't want other young riders to face the same dilemma he had.  While we may like to focus on the Sosas, Clemens, Bonds, Armstrongs, and Contadors of sports, these nobodies are the real tragedies, rather than the superstars.  It's the single-A pitcher who sees the double-A pitchers doing it, or the Cat 1 cyclist who sees the domestic pros.  It's the Junior Elite triathlete who sees guys on the Continental Cup and Ironman circuit doing it.  I don't know how prevalent that last example is, but  recent trends make me less than comfortable (Michi Weiss, Mark Fretta, that triathlete-cyclist-triathlete guy from Texas who wears a lot of yellow all come to mind).
While it would be great to say that we will one day rid all sports of cheating, I honestly can't say I believe that. However, I do think it's possible to mitigate the effectiveness of cheating, at least so that it's not an entering argument to make it into the sport.
Instead, I'll give an exaggerated, yet hopefully clearer version that everybody, whether you're a baseball, triathlon, or cycling fan...imagine the 100m dash in track and field. Imagine certain athletes just start getting ever so slightly in front of the starting line to make it 98m instead of 100.  Nobody really does anything about it.  Eventually, it becomes the norm and in order to compete, you have to take that extra 2m head start.   A new guy comes along and takes his mark at the proper starting line.  He knows something is wrong when everybody is in front of him and tries to say something but can't.  He gets crushed and vows to make up for that 2m head start, but he can't get that time back, not when races have to be decided by a computerized camera that has a faster shutter speed than the human eye.  Maybe if he's a superhuman he can come close to competing with the guys who are taking that headstart, but he's certainly not going to beat them.  So what does he do? He moves right on up, or he continues a life of mediocrity.  This is that 2% Vaughters is talking about. Again though, that's not what we as a culture seem to fixate on for our views on performance enhancing drugs.
I think most would agree that the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa duel for the single season home run record in 1998 was a HUGE factor in getting fans back into baseball after the 1994-1995 strike that soured so many. Baseball was great to watch in the late 1990s and early 2000s, because then you also started to have Bonds chasing Hank Aaron's career record, in addition to continually threatening the single-season home run record. For you cyclists and triathletes, sorry I am boring you with baseball, but I promise there is a point to this.  This year's Tour de France got a lot of criticism as one of the most boring ever, but that eerily reminded me of what we heard about the steroid era in baseball.  Watching Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds slug it out for most home runs while Roger Clemens continued to throw 95 mph fastballs when he was approaching eligibility for an AARP membership was damn exciting to serious and casual fans alike.  For cycling, it's a lot more exciting to watch Lance Armstrong give Jan Ullrich "the look" and take off on an acceleration up a climb, or have Alberto Contador do the same thing to Armstrong several years later.  But, as we now see, that was all theatrics.  Funny enough, one of the critics of the "boring" 2012 Tour de France was Frank Schleck...who tested positive for a banned substance (whooooops).  On the other hand, Bradley Wiggins defended how "boring" the tour was because it was clean.
So what are we left with now, but perhaps the coming of a second deadball era in baseball (still, not likely) and slow, boring cycling races without the same sorts of powerful, exciting attacks that we grew used to.  That's ok.  It doesn't mean baseball or cycling is totally clean; there will always be the shortstop who doesn't actually touch second base when turning a double play or the cyclist who hangs onto the car to make the time cut off or even the triathlete who turns around before the cone.  It's sad to say it, but we will probably at least have athletes microdosing their drugs, but we are minimizing it so that there are fewer Jonathan Vaughters.  More important than reducing the numbers of Vaughters is reducing the number of athletes we never even hear of, like those that Nicole Cooke brings up in her last statement as a professional cyclist. or even athletes we never knew because they made the right decision the first time around.


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