Home Page For once, an event which exceeded expectations and banished clouds 11/07/14

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Hart of the Matter

We are so used to the hype that now precedes any planned event of any size that it comes as little surprise when it all turns out to be a damp squib, a disappointing anti-climax – in fact, we rather revel in it.


There was a lot of hype before the World Cup but, although the competition itself turned out to be a good one, full of surprises, the English contribution was over before it had properly begun. Similarly, Andy Murray flattered to deceive this year.


But that is sport – a heady mix of triumph and disaster. On Monday I paid a fiver to park in a big field, walked a mile-and-a-half in the warm morning sun down into Finchingfield, threaded my way with difficulty through the vast crowds to find a convenient spot, put up the camping chair and waited for three hours.


Eventually I, along with everyone else, saw some 20 seconds worth of a blur of flashing colours, and the nearly 200 competitors in the Tour de France had passed and were gone on their three-week marathon test of endurance and technique.


A lot of effort, for very little reward, you might think. But, as we heaved up our chairs and picnic debris and trudged back up the hill under the even hotter afternoon sun to the car park, all I heard all around me was people saying: "That was really worth it!”


Why was it worth it? To me, as a long-time fan of cycling, it was always going to be exciting, but most of the crowd, I guess, had hardly heard of the Tour de France until Sir Bradley Wiggins’ victory in 2012, and many not even until now. You’d think they might have been just a bit disappointed.


I can’t abide F1, even on TV, and to go and watch it has always seemed pointless to me because it passes so quickly. Yet its fans will talk of the sound, the smell, the atmosphere.


You don’t get much sound and there’s no fuel smell in cycling, but the atmosphere on Monday was tangible. And you only see it once on a day - unlike boring F1, they don’t generally ride round and round in circles. Some people had been up to see it in Yorkshire over the weekend, but that’s just a bit too obsessive for me.


Nevertheless to have it pass within ten miles of Haverhill is an experience I never expected to see and will never forget. I didn’t manage to pick out last year’s winner Chris Froome, partly because I was trying to take photos and watch at the same time.


He typified the ups and downs of sport (literally) over the next couple of days, crashing three times and having to give up.


An event which lasts as long as the Tour de France is an epic soap opera in itself - an unfolding story, which few sports can match. Sadly, the story of cycling as a whole has not been an entirely happy one, and has demonstrated on a global scale the ups and downs of a sports fan.


I’m sure it was not coincidence that this last week has seen the broadcasting of two in-depth documentary films about Lance Armstrong, who ‘won’ the Tour a record seven times, but has now been stripped of all of them. It is hardly possible for a non-fan of cycling, or for a British sports fan, to imagine the emotions which must have surrounded this most controversial of figures.


To get anywhere near it, imagine if Roger Federer had been British, the level of patriotic sports fervour he would have generated (he generates a huge amount in this country anyway because he has been so spectacular to watch and such a nice guy!). If he had, at the height of his career, been diagnosed with cancer, overcome it, fought back to win Wimbledon another four times and founded a vast charity to fight the disease.


He would have become a god in Britain. Any suggestion of such a sportsperson taking performance enhancing drugs would have been utterly condemned. Imagine it then turns out to be true, that he admits it all on TV. Not only that, it appears he has destroyed countless lives in his vicious efforts to prevent exposure.


How would we all feel about that? American sports fans have had to endure that nightmare, and the only consolation is that they have so many other, more honest sporting heroes to turn to.


But that kind of betrayal, and the revelations of industrial levels of drug use by the American US Postal team, has made it difficult for some people to view the sport as having any integrity at all.


After all, many of the cyclists flashing by on Monday have endured short bans at one time or another for findings of illegal substances. Even Alberto Contador, one of the leading contenders, was stripped of one of his three Tour de France victories as a result of a finding in 2010, which he always denied, blaming a dodgy steak.


Riders are tested within an inch of their lives nowadays, more than in any other sport. But the cloud still hangs there.


However, in the case of Armstrong it went a lot further because of the way he bullied people within the sport and cajoled people outside of it, even to the highest levels in America, the President himself. His denials, often filmed, and now collected together in these documentaries, are astonishing, and reveal a consummate actor at work.


They show how, once you start on something underhand but high-profile, the level of denial grows until you believe it yourself. We see it every day in politics. We’ve even seen that around here. Politicians who have come to believe their own spin.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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