London was all set for a coronation. It didn’t happen though. After Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, you could say they almost deserved it (almost – because Grannykiller still haven’t forgiven Boyle for the turkey that was ‘The Beach’). Six days after Bradley Wiggins and his Sky teammates dominated the Tour de France, Team GB got their tactics all wrong today, and Mark Cavendish was denied the victory that everyone thought was going to be a formality. (Including Paddy Power, who quoted the Manxman at odds of 1/2 during the race.)
In truth, most of the other teams, including Ireland,got their tactics wrong too but after the feel-good factor the opening ceremony, the flip-side of the Olympic ideal was exemplified by the winner of the road race, Alexandre Vinokourov, a convicted drugs cheat, claiming the gold medal.
Even setting aside the fact that Vinokourov achieved his win today at the age of 38, a remarkable feat in itself, it’s only five years since the Kazakh was found guilty of blood-doping during the 2007 Tour de France. Vinokourov had left the T-Mobile team after the 2005 season to join the Liberty Seguros-Worth team, lead by the controversial Manolo Sainz.
While there were whispers about Vinokourov before this, it was around this time that they cranked into overdrive, particularly after he started associating with the notorious Dr. Michele Ferrari (who also ‘advised’ Lance Armstrong and received a lifetime ban from the US Anti-Doping Aurthority).
“No one directed me toward Ferrari. I was encouraged only by people like Mario Cipollini who said nothing but good things. [Lance] Armstrong also worked with him. I would not miss out on this experience,” said Vinokourov in an interview with l’Equipe at the time.
“I did a test of effort in order to see where I was physically, and my training depended on the results. Ferrari never gave me any medicines.”
Vinokourov’s relationship with Ferrari was only one of a few links with some of cycling’s murkier figures. This was borne out by the fact that Liberty Seguros-Worth were caught up in Operation Puerto only a few months after Vinokourov joined them.
Operation Puerto was tasked with investigating the activities of Dr Eufemiano Fuentes, who organised blood doping for
cyclists on a massive scale. (Indeed cyclists were not the only beneficiaries of his ‘expertise’, with Fuentes recently claiming that the 2010 Spanish World Cup football team would have to “return their medals” if he revealed all he knew).
Though the Kazakh was not directly named by the investigation, Operation Fuentes decimated Vinokourov’s new team to such an extent that they were unable to get six clean cyclists to the line ahead of the 2006 Tour de France.
A few weeks later came the Vuelta d’Espana, and the team were in a shambles. Liberty Seguros (the Spanish arm of Liberty Insurance, who have those annoying ads during ‘The Late Late show’) withdrew their sponsorship of the team, with a group of Kazakh businessmen taking their place, so the new team became Astana-Wurth (Wurth were soon to depart the scene too).
Despite the controversy surrounding the team, and the squad in a shambles, ‘Vino’ took the tour by storm winning by over a minute from Alejandro Valverde (who was later banned for two years as part of the Operation Puerto investigation). It was a stunning performance, but it couldn’t be legitimate, could it?
That question was definitively answered in the Tour de France in 2007. Again, Vinokourov looked like he was attempting the impossible. A terrible fall in the opening week injured both his knees, and his hopes looked over. But he won the individual time trial, and then the 15th stage. The comeback looked to be on.
But then it all fell apart. Vinokourov was convicted of blood doping. The Kazakh cycling authorities (essentially the same businessmen who controlled his Astana team) gave him a laughable 12-month ban which the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) appealed. After serving a two-year ban, he returned saying: “Astana was created in 2006, it is our baby, I would not want to join another team.The Kazakhstan cycling federation wants me to ride in this team. This team was created for me and it is down to me and I don’t see why I should not return.”
He rode the Tour de France both this year and last, doing well enough, but never again threatening for overall victory, though he did manage a third place finish on Stage 18 this year.
It’s not that he beat Cavendish in London – 32 other riders did that too – it’s the fact that Vinokourov is a throwback to the dark days that cycling is trying to escape. He was involved, unrepentantly, with the likes of Dr Michele Ferrari.
It was galling to see him in breakaways in the Tour de France, uttery galling. But while there is a new generation of clean cyclists coming through, there is still an attitude in cycling of turning a blind eye to the so-called ‘reformed cheats’. Paul Kimmage wrote about this last week when questionning Team Sky’s willingness to abandon their ‘clean cyclists and clean doctors only’ stance.
That attitude (which allowed Frank Schleck – third in the Tour de France last year – to get away with admitting that he paid €7000 to Dr Fuentes during the Operation Puerto investigation. What was he paying one of the world’s finest blood-doping authorities for? Cycling never pursued the question, and he got away with it until last week, when he was kicked out of the Tour de France for doping offences) is sickening enough in cycling, but the Olympics is something different.
The Olympics are where we are meant to hear of people like Kieran Behan – the gymnast who made it to the games despite being told that he would never walk again. There are hundreds of these stories and they are what the Olympics are all about; not the likes of Vinokourov, who has always tried to inject his way into such narratives.
His dramatic recovery in the 2007 Tour de France was talked about at the time as the comeback of a champion. He was putting it all on the line, but it turned out the only lines he knew about were ones that you snort. He made us believe, but he was juiced up and made mugs of everyone who believed in his story.
Cheats like Vinokourov don’t just cheat their fellow athletes, they instead cheat us of the story, the fairytale, the mystique of the games. And if Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony taught us anything, the stories are all that count.