If you were a young sportswriter at the turn of the millennium, the chances were that you had read It's Not About the Bike — Lance Armstrong's account of how he beat testicular cancer and then won the Tour de France for the first time. The book inspired millions. For those like me, who had lost a loved one to cancer, it struck other chords as well. It was the perfect narrative, individual triumphing against incredible odds, and you bought into it. You wanted to.
Now we know that it was the most elaborately constructed sham in sporting history, that Armstrong was at the apex of a doping system so sophisticated that it made fools of most people for years. My own eyes were partially opened nearly a decade ago. By then, I had started writing extensively on Indian cricket for the Sunday Times in London. One of their finest columnists was David Walsh, who had been asking uncomfortable questions about Armstrong and his US Postal team for years.
The more I read Walsh, the more sceptical I became. This was not some potentially disgruntled employee making allegations. This was a brilliant, award-winning journalist whose research was usually impeccable. Yet, with Armstrong not failing any tests, you still wanted to believe.
On ESPN.com, Rick Reilly, another celebrated columnist who had defended Armstrong for more than a decade, put it best: "It's partially my fault. I let myself admire him. Let myself admire what he'd done with his life, admire the way he'd not only beaten his own cancer but was trying to help others beat it. When my sister was diagnosed, she read his book and got inspired. And I felt some pride in that. I let it get personal. And now I know he was living a lie and I was helping him live it."
For cricket fans, the Armstrong saga is an unwelcome reminder of various fixing scandals that have tarnished the game for years.
Dropcap OnFor cricket fans, the Armstrong saga is an unwelcome reminder of various fixing scandals that have tarnished the game for years. At least Armstrong confessed, even if it was a watered down admission of guilt. Cricket has allowed many of those whose actions were decidedly dubious to stay in the game in various capacities. We still have nothing resembling closure.
There have also been disgraceful attempts to change the narrative. Just as there were idiots who tried to wish away Armstrong's transgressions on account of the work he had done for charities like Livestrong, so there are plenty of apologists for the likes of Hansie Cronje and Salman Butt.
What is most disgusting is the fact that people sit in judgment on the likes of Tiger Woods, while going soft on fixers on account of them being "good Christians" or "family men". Woods, in my eyes, is still a figure worthy of respect and admiration. He may have cheated on a partner. That's a private and personal issue. He has never cheated the game he owes his name to. He betrayed one person. Fixers and drug cheats betray millions, and they shame the sport that has given them everything.
The most sobering aspect of being a journalist on the road is what you get to see at close quarters. The idols of millions are usually deeply flawed selfish individuals worthy of nothing other than disdain. The only reason cynicism doesn't take over completely is because of the few good men, the ones you wish you could be.
With men like Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Michael Holding, what you see is what you get. They aren't creations of some PR agency. They're ordinary men who performed certain athletic tasks extraordinarily well. They were also wise enough to realise that those gifts didn't give them any right to ride roughshod over others. To echo a phrase that Dravid was especially fond of using, "it's been a privilege" to know them.