Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Tale of Two Armstrongs

The newspapers this weekend have been full of stories about two men who, though not related, share a surname.  I am, of course, referring to the two Armstrongs,  Lance and Neil.  Until recently, both men have represented something noble and uplifting about the human condition and both could, if they were so inclined, lay reasonable claim to the status of icon.  But the news of the past few days of Neil’s death and Lance’s disgrace has confirmed one as a hero for all time and the other as a hypocrite, liar and cheat.

Professional road cycling is an incredibly tough sport where races like the Tour de France routinely break strong and highly trained athletes, both physically and mentally.  In extreme cases, such as that of Tommy Simpson, the sport can, quite literally, kill.  If you are in any doubt about this, just have a read of books like Paul Kimmage’s Rough Ride, an autobiography of a journeyman professional, whose role in life was to do whatever was necessary to assist the stars of his team.

In this light, Lance Armstrong’s achievements appeared to be superhuman.  After all, this was a man who not only won more Tours de France than any other man, who had rewritten the record books of his sport and had totally eclipsed greats of the sport like Eddie Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain but he had done all this after having recovered from life threatening cancer and having undergone severe chemotherapy.  This was life-affirming stuff, a lesson in the ability of humankind to suffer and to overcome huge adversity.  Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation quite rightly managed to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to become the second largest funder of cancer research in the US after the federal government.

But even after all of this, he was probably only the second most famous bearer of his surname.  Neil Armstrong is, of course, famous for being the first man to set foot on the Moon but he was also a highly skilled pilot who flew almost 80 combat missions in the Korean War before becoming a test pilot and, ultimately an astronaut.  Undoubtedly a possessor of Tom Wolfe’s Right Stuff, the grainy TV pictures of his one small step and that hair-tingling commentary are amongst the most iconic images of all time.

A very private individual, Neil Armstrong became a professor at a university in Cincinnati after his moon landing and later retired to a farm in Ohio.  His public appearances were infrequent and he did not court the attention that could have followed him everywhere.  He was about as far removed from today’s celebrities as is imaginable.

In 1999, on the 30th anniversary of the moon landing, Armstrong gave his view on what his achievement (and those of his fellow astronauts and the support teams at NASA) meant to the world.  He believed that it was significant because it signaled that humankind was not forever bound to the earth but could free its shackles and move beyond it.  This view, whilst accurate, was also, as was typical of the man, too understated.  His real achievement was to remind us all of our potential to challenge our limits and to do the seemingly impossible.  In breaking new frontiers, Armstrong revealed to us the best of our natures.

For Lance, it all started to go wrong in the late 2000s when allegations of performance enhancing drug use first began to circulate.  Notoriously litigious, Armstrong was always happy to sue and fiercely denied any wrongdoing, often attacking the character of those who challenged him.  He also benefited from the unwavering support of team mates and management and from his power and influence within the sport.   But, at the beginning of this year, four of his former team mates unilaterally emailed the USOC to ask not to be selected for the US cycling team at the London Olympics.  The reason soon became clear. 

In pursuing a federal investigation into doping in cycling, the FDA had forced a number of cyclists, including members of Armstrong’s former team, US Postal, to give evidence.  Although the agency had dropped its investigation, the US Anti-Doping Agency had become aware of the testimony of the cyclists and started its own investigation.   Knowing that USADA was already aware of their previous testimony, Armstrong’s team mates couldn’t go back on their evidence.  USADA determined that Armstrong had been guilty of systematic doping and stripped him of each of his Tour de France titles.  Although the worldwide governing body of cycling, the UCI, could challenge this decision, it appears unlikely to do so.

With evidence and testimony continuing to build up against him, Armstrong last week decided not to contest the USADA charges and to accept the stripping of his titles.  Let’s be clear here.  A man like Armstrong does not quit fighting just like that.  Despite trying to portray himself as a victim, his decision can only be seen as a tacit admission of guilt.  Armstrong is not the comic book hero his PR portrayed him as, defeating cancer and the cycling competition.  He is a cheat and a liar.  He is also a hypocrite, having been outspoken in his condemnation of doping.

If I’m honest, if all Armstrong had been guilty of was doping, I wouldn’t have been so angry.  The sport of road cycling was rife with doping during the ‘90s and 2000s.  Indeed, it is probably true to say that it would have been exceedingly difficult to beat a doped up field without resorting to it oneself.  Since Armstrong’s retirement, two of his successors to the yellow jersey of the Tour champion, Floyd Landis and Alberto Contador have also been banned for doping.  Landis has spoken eloquently of the environment of the sport and the US Postal team, in which it felt normal and not immoral to dope.  I can empathise with this and with the pressure a young athlete must have felt.

What makes me angry are the lies, the hypocrisy and the smearing of those who bore witness against him, such as Michelle O’Reilly, the US Postal team therapist, whom Armstrong called a mentally disturbed prostitute in court, abusing the privilege granted to court evidence.  And most of all, the damage he has done to the belief that we, the human being, can really do such amazing things by challenging our limitations.

Which brings me back to the other Armstrong, Neil.  It was announced yesterday that he had died, aged 82, after having suffered heart problems.  Unlike Lance, he never wrote an autobiography.  Unlike Lance, he will forever be, not just an American hero but a hero for humankind, a man who opened our minds to humankind’s potential to open new frontiers and challenge its limitations.  Even more wonderfully, by never claiming to be superhuman or special, he showed us that this potential lies within us all.  The words of John Magee’s poem, High Flight come to mind:

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

RIP Neil Armstrong, 1930-2012

Thursday, August 16, 2012

2,488: Bryant and May and the Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler

Last summer and autumn I took part in the Transworld Reading Challenge, in which I got to choose four novels from a selection of their titles and then review them.  One of the titles I chose was The Water Room by Christopher Fowler, featuring his slightly odd detective duo, Arthur Bryant and John May.  Having thoroughly enjoyed it and intending to read some more of the series, I then promptly moved on and forgot all about it.

Fast forward almost a year and I arrived home the other day to find a package waiting for me.  Tearing off the wrapping eagerly, I discovered that the lovely people at Transworld had very kindly sent me a copy of Bryant and May and the Invisible Code, the latest book in the series.

For those of you not acquainted with the series, Bryant and May are the two senior detectives in the little-known Peculiar Crimes Unit of the Metropolitan Police, whose function (other than its perennial fight for existence) is to solve, well, peculiar crimes really.  Bryant and May are both old men who have somehow avoided mandatory retirement.  Bryant is irascible, fascinated by the esoteric and prone to ruining technology by some mysterious innate ability.  May is the “people person” of the duo, a bit of a ladies’ man and seemingly forever doomed to play straight man to Bryant.  They are assisted in their endeavours by a small but devoted crew of police officers and some decidedly odd acquaintances.  It is definitely possible to read Bryant and May and the Invisible Code as a stand-alone novel but I think there’s more to be gained from it by reading others in the series first.

The story opens with the death of a young woman in a church, apparently from natural causes, despite two children claiming that they had cursed her to death for being a witch.  Bryant’s curiosity is piqued but he can’t manage to finagle the case into the Peculiar Crimes Unit.  Conveniently for him, the PCU’s nemesis, the saturnine Oscar Kasavian, needs their help as his spouse has begun to behave in a most peculiar fashion, jeopardising his chances of heading a major government initiative.

As the two situations become increasingly interlinked, Bryant and May take us on a romp through London involving witchcraft, codes, the Rakes Club and secret nooks and crannies around London as the case starts to threaten not only the future of the PCU but even the lives of its members.

As with the other Bryant and May book I’ve read, Bryant and May and the Invisible Code is a many-layered tale, a little like the London to which this is a bit of an extended love letter.  It is a genuine detective story on one level, an affectionate parody of detective tropes on another and even a little bit of a supernatural tale on yet another.

But, permeating the whole of the book, London is Fowler’s true subject.  Like China Mieville, Dickens and others, Fowler captures a number of London’s myriad faces.  His London is not the bright lights of the West End or the aristocratic enclaves of Belgravia and Kensington but a moodier, more hidden London where, even when it’s sunny, there is an impression of shadow.  It’s a London filled with the quirky, a London that sits on layer upon layer of history and life.

Having failed to follow up with Bryant and May once before, I’m not going to make that mistake again and will be catching up with their earlier cases very soon.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

2,489: The Secret Olympian by Anon

Well it's nearly over.  We are just a few hours away from the closing ceremony of the London Olympics.  As I write, the last of the 304 gold medals has just been won and soon the Olympic baton will have been handed on to Rio, which will, I am sure, do a wonderful job in 2016 and take the Games to even greater heights.  London 2012 has been fantastic, an eye-opening experience for even the most jaded Londoners and I’m sure that somewhere out there, a future generation of Olympians has been inspired.  I’m also sure that I’m not one of them and not just because I’m old, untalented and slothful.

My overriding impression having finished The Secret Olympian is that being an Olympic athlete and even a medallist may well not be all it’s cracked up to be.  What Anon, the unnamed member of the British team at the Athens Games of 2004, does is to give us an incredible insight into the life and  mind of an elite level  athlete in an Olympic sport.  And it’s not all that pretty.

The picture he (and it is clear from the text that he is male - without wanting to rain on his parade, I strongly suspect he was a member of the 2004 rowing squad) draws is one of monkish self-discipline, impecuniousness, the paradox of superb physical specimens being highly susceptible to illness, the stress of selection, the self-doubt and the constant fear that a loss of form or a minor niggle can cost you your place on the team.  It comes as little surprise that, for many Olympians, the first reaction on being selected is one of relief and not joy.

Even the Olympic Village, portrayed recently as Party Central, is not what it seems.  All of the partying appears to be as much a temporary escape from reality as anything and, according to Anon, for all but the lucky few who win a medal, it becomes a place for soul-searching and regrets.  And for the prurient amongst us, he demolishes the urban myth of the village being filled with athletes fornicating like rabbits for it appears that the huge numbers of condoms provided to the athletes are actually collected in bulk by athletes from certain countries for resale when they get home.

The Secret Olympian is also a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of an Olympics, from selection, through the fun of the kitting out day, to the experience of competition and dealing with the aftermath, whether win or lose.  Anon dispels some common assumptions, such as the concept that Olympians are all sporting prodigies - indeed, many Olympic athletes were actually pretty useless at the sports they first played at school and almost accidentally fall into the sports that will bring them success.  There is also some pouring of cold water on the idea that a gold medal will lead to wealth and fame.  Save for the all-tine greats, even a gold medalist has a four year window of opportunity to capitalise on their success before a new crop of medalists come along with a new set of backstories and a fresher set of faces.

If you have been, like me, captivated by the events of the last 16 days or, if you are at least a little but interested in sport, this will be an enjoyable read.  It only reinforces the fact that I could never have been a high level sportsman but gives an idea of what it is like to be one.  It's not always a pretty view but, nevertheless, I'll still dream of being on that podium.