Monday, August 29, 2005

Silly Season Continues

The last week of the silly season turned out to be less than silly for American cyclist Lance Armstrong, the seven-time winner of the annual Tour de France stage race. A French sports newspaper (L'Equipe – the daily paper with the largest paid circulation in France, incidentally) announced in glaring color that it had incontrovertible "proof" that Armstrong took the performance-enhancing drug EPO in 1999. In a nutshell, the paper trumpeted gleefully that it had managed to match numbered "anonymous" frozen urine samples with paper receipts and stubs allegedly containing Armstrong's identifying number – without revealing any truly pertinent details of people, time and place. Hence, for the newspaper, Armstrong has now been "convicted" of using dope, notwithstanding the somewhat egregious breaches of racers' anonymity, testing procedures and generally accepted legal and professional standards.

Well, well. After the Festina affair at the end of the 1990s (results of medical exams demonstrated conclusively that nine cyclists on the Festina-sponsored team, including French star Richard Virenque, used the banned substance EPO, while four used amphetamines), new testing protocols were put into place. Bikeracers are tested much more frequently nowadays, with more efficient tests than were available eight or nine years ago. Random, unannounced spot checks are carried out on all runners. By basing their as-yet-legally-unproven accusations on 1999 blood samples that were recently tested (correctly frozen all that time ? unbreakable and provable chain of custody ? duly witnessed testing ?), the reporters at L'Equipe have pulled a moth-eaten, dog-eared rabbit of their collectively journalistic hat, with great fanfare. It's typical silly season fare: squeezed in at the end of August, before the rentrée sweeps the summertime chessboard clean and the French buckle down to far more serious activities.

Elements in the French press – most notably L'Equipe, actually – have been gunning for Armstrong for quite a while - ever since he won his first Tour in 1999, subsequent to his near-miraculous comeback from testicular cancer. Year in, year out, there have been rumors of Armstrong taking drugs to better his performance, fanned by the same papers. Last year a book came out here (LA confidentiel, les secrets de Lance Armstrong) alleging that Armstrong took dope. He has sued for libel and the case is scheduled for trial soon in London, England. In July, 2005 the national paper Le Parisien outdid itself with innuendo and in-depth guilt-by-association articles.

During the last week of this year's Tour de France, which culminated on the Champs-Elysées on July 24th, Le Parisien sniped constantly at Armstrong. One was able to read a range of articles asking selected Frenchmen-on-the-street, sports figures and others if they thought Lance was doped. Unsurprisingly, Le Parisien chose to print affirmative answers only, all the while abstaining from furnishing relevant facts … such as proof of doping. Concomitantly, on another page of another edition of the paper, in an inconspicuous place, the attentive reader was able to find a small item stating that a "surprise" early-morning doping test had been carried out at the hotel housing the Tour de France runners. Could Le Parisien have been neatly preparing the journalistic ground for a planned scandal … which never broke, since the test(s) on Lance and his team were negative ?

A quick reality check, before readily believing all one reads in the press about Evil Doper Lance Armstrong … the Tour de France event, the newspaper L'Equipe, and the newspaper Le Parisien all belong, in varying degrees of majority ownership, to the same company: the Groupe Amaury. Gosh, might one be forgiven if one were to think that there might be links among them ? Gee whiz, might one be forgiven if one were to think that any supposed Chinese wall could resemble Gruyere cheese ? Golly, might one be forgiven if one were to think that these doping "proofs" – appearing seven years after the alleged infraction(s) - are somewhat tainted, not to say outright stinky ?

As happens at far too frequent intervals, no matter which country or which era, a portion of the popular press has managed to thrust several of its reptilian heads temporarily out of the slimy swamp in which it habitually slithers and wiggles. Every country has newspapers like these, and every country has "trial by press", in different degrees of severity, as part of its popular culture. One has only to cast a brief glance at the London or New York tabloids: the French popular press certainly has no monopoly on muck, exaggeration and vilification ! French President Jacques Chirac once said, referring in exasperation to his own roasting in the media during a particularly trying time: Calomniez, calomniez, il en restera toujours quelque chose ! (a colloquial rendition: Sling mud, sling mud, some of it is bound to stick !). This proverblike phrase, variously attributed to Voltaire, Beaumarchais and Sir Francis Bacon, is one that the French adroitly trot out when complaining about the press. It fits the bill in this case: no doubt about that.

Since the last Frenchman who won the Tour de France was Bernard Hinault in 1985, a certain amount of chauvinistic frustration might be understandable. Twenty years is a long, long time: an entire generation has grown up without seeing a Frenchman victorious in the Tour, the premier cycling event in France and, undoubtedly, in the entire world. The wretched performance of the French national soccer team in 1992 and the recent failure of Paris to land the 2012 Olympics have but inflamed the wounds to French sporting pride, at its zenith when France won the World Cup in 1998. French sports fans – especially bike fans - are hurting. There is no French model for French youth in the cycling world – only Lance Armstrong, that nasty American rider whose motivation, dedication, preparation and performance are legendary. What better way to prepare for the arrival of a new role model … than to denigrate and discredit the old ? Especially when the average Frenchman – as a general rule - feels that il n'y a pas de fumée sans feu (where there's smoke, there's fire), and can find it psychologically convenient to believe that Armstrong rode so well simply because he was chemically aided ? L'Equipe, never a paper to miss a trick, has been sowing on all-too-fertile ground, alas.

Lance Armstrong has always denied taking dope, and not once in the dozens, perhaps hundreds of urine/blood tests that he underwent as a professional cyclist, has he tested positive for EPO. The law says that each man is innocent until proven guilty. Whatever newspapers, observers and frustrated sports fans think or want to believe (or are brainwashed into believing) doesn't matter: "no proof, no guilt" is the name of the game. That's the law in France, just as in the USA, and both countries are much the better for it, at the end of the day. Perhaps Armstrong is lying; perhaps he really did take dope. In that case, proof that he did is required … and it is lacking. It's as simple as that.

Lance appeared on CNN's Larry King Show a few days ago, in part to refute L'Equipe's allegations. He is a tremendously articulate athlete, a far cry from the creatinized cretins appearing on various US TV programs during the ongoing dope scandals in US major league baseball. His performance chez Larry was like his riding: prepared, polished and persuasive. He was master of himself and of the situation and did not fall into the trap of debating the arcana of testing procedures (with the division of a sample into A and B vials, the same procedure used when testing here for drunk driving). It was clear that he was looking to the future, not to the past … which was only to be expected from him, of course. Much as Secretariat, that greatest racehorse, outclassed his entire three-year old generation in 1973 and won the Triple Crown, Lance Armstrong outclassed all the riders thrown against him in the Tour de France, seven years running. It's most assuredly not Lance Armstrong's fault that other riders are not at his level. He made it clear that L'Equipe's sniping and accusations would always be there, no matter what he did or didn't do, and that it was time to move on.

If the past is any guide, the new Tour de France route – this time for 2006 - will be disclosed in the latter part of the month of October. It will receive prominent play in L'Equipe and Le Parisien. It might then be possible to ascertain if L'Equipe's allegations are part and parcel of a movement to install and promote a homegrown contender for the Tour de France, now that Armstrong is gone. If the Tour contains a lot of mountain stages, for example … look for a climber !

What a close to the silly season ! Reasonable people will do well to remember what Sir Francis Bacon said: "Lies are sufficient to breed opinion, and opinion brings on substance". L'Equipe is but the latest newspaper to confuse accusations with proof, opinion with substance. There have been and will be others, at other times, in France and in other countries. It is not particular to France. It is not "French behavior". It is merely reprehensible and is to be condemned in no uncertain terms.

Bonne route, Lance !


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque

Monday, August 22, 2005

Silly Season

In the media world, August is considered to be the "silly season".

With many people in the Northern Hemisphere on holiday, or involved in the tourist trade, there is usually less hard news than at other times of the year – wars, plagues and air tragedies notwithstanding. Working Western Europeans are traditionally taking their hard-earned vacations, while Russians are off in the country - if possible, at their dachas. Amerloque is no exception, of course: he came to France for its quality of life. August in the French countryside, far from the cares of Paris, is one of the high points of his year, if only because there is time enough to reflect on the vagaries of society.

Silly season occurrences have never failed to amuse and infuriate at the same time.

Probably no event symbolizes the bankruptcy of French Socialist thinking more than "Paris Plage", the boondoggle developed by the Mayor and his Green allies to imitate a beach in the center of Paris, along the quays on the Right Bank of the Seine. Spending taxpayer money as though all other pressing problems were already correctly financed, calling on supposed "private sponsorship" (among them: La Poste, EDF, and the RATP …), handing over any moneymaking concessions to private interests, and causing enormous disruption to transport, shopping, daily life and traditional tourism, the organizers annually demonstrate that the tenets of smoke-and-mirrors French Socialism are alive and well. Vast alarums and excursions for an ephemeral return, en somme: a lot of real pain for no real gain.

This year the Paris Apprenti Plagistes have outdone themselves by choosing "Brazil" as the main theme. The central government had decreed that the year 2005 was to be "the year of Brazil", certainly (President Lula was the guest of honor at the Bastille Day parade, in which Brazilian military units marched), but was that a reason for the Socialists, allegedly the opposition party, to stick with that choice ?

Never mind that the Brazilian President, swept into office on the strength of the leftist credentials of his Workers’ Party (PT), has turned out to have an administration riddled with corruption and incompetence. Never mind that this same Brazilian President has authorized genetically modified crops to be planted in Brazil. (Genetically-modified organisms (GMO), you'll recall, have been - and continue to be - hotly contested by Les Verts, the French environmental political party, those faithful allies of the Mayor of Paris who scupulously follow the "green" agenda – only when it suits them, of course.). Never mind that this Brazilian President has failed to prevent Amazon destruction soaring to record levels. Never mind that this Brazilian President has worked for the establishment of the "Soybean Highway", neatly bisecting what remains of the southern Amazon forest.

All public knowledge, but still Brazil was chosen as the Paris Plage theme by the Socialist Mayor and his Green allies. How very, very sad – but in keeping with the nature of the beast, which, along with cherrypicking its doctrine so as to dumb down its socialist programs even more, assumes that French voters are stupid and have no memory. What is truly worrying, too, is the speed with which other cities throughout the world have adopted the idea. If copycat beaches are all that municipal administrations can come up with for summertime events, local government as it is known today is in big trouble.

Another silly season highlight is the return of Zidane to the French national soccer team. Miming a Napoleon or a De Gaulle, Zidane is the most recent manifestation of the French "comeback kid" tradition. The French are persuaded that soccer is a "universal" sport, appreciated in equal measure throughout the world. Hence, the French suppose that success of the national team will enhance their worldwide prestige. Perhaps - but isn't it a bit like doing well in a gin rummy tournament when other parts of the world are playing bridge ? Look at how many countries – some more influentially sporting than others - do not have soccer as the major sport: the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, Indonesia; India, and Pakistan, for starters. What good is it to excel at a sport that a goodly percentage of the world population doesn't particularly care about ? Ah - interestingly enough, the French consider sports to be "sports", rather than "entertainment", which might explain the massive insistence on soccer. Alors, le revoici, le Zidane.

Of course; it's silly season in Europe, too. At the International Herald Tribune, in a column about holidays in Europe, Thomas Fuller, one of the IHT's least unaware journalists (to put it politely) tells the story of a somewhat obtuse American:

Eugene Aughinbaugh and his wife decided to renovate their apartment in Brussels this summer and had planned on a completion date of July 7. But in a story that might be familiar to anyone who has done major home redecorating in Europe, the plumber left for vacation in the south of France before installing the new toilet and sink; the workmen in charge of creating a new kitchen put down their tools and went on their own vacations, leaving the old kitchen piled up on the terrace; and when the Aughinbaughs called their architect, he, too, wasn't much help - vacationing in southern France.

Now living in the rubble of his half-completed apartment, Aughinbaugh, an American, had this bitter conclusion: "I can assure you from many of my own local contacts that the Europeans not only want their vacations, they simply don't want to work at all."

Apparently this Eugene Aughinbaugh fellow has never heard the proverb "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Importing his cultural norm to Europe, he thinks that late spring and early summer are good times to hire workers to renovate an apartment. Eugene, Europeans renovate their own houses and apartments in late spring / early summer, not those belonging to others. Trundle on down to your local bookshop and purchase a copy of Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. Read it and gain some perspective. Leave your cultural norm at home, Eugene: it's not wanted here in Continental Europe.

Finally, the most delicious silly season tidbit (at least so far – there are still some days to go) comes from Spain via a French site. Victoria Beckham, the 31-year old pop singer formerly known as Posh in the Spice Girls group and now wife of David Beckham, the English soccer wiz, has confessed that she has never read a book. "I haven't got enough time," she told a Spanish journalist, "I prefer to listen to music, although I do love fashion magazines." It's hard to decide which is worse: the fact that this cultural icon, brayingly portrayed as a role model by the media, has never read a book, or the fact that she publicly admits it. One hopes that she is simply being disingenuous – it is, after all, the silly season.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque