Geelong Advertiser, Monday 28 July 2008, p. 21.
Like many people I have had a flickering interest in the Tour de France for many years, especially when someone one knew about was taking part. Long ago in the UK it was guys like Tommy Simpson and the continental superstars like Jacques Anquetil, Eddie Merckz and Miguel Indurain who caught my imagination. Their efforts seemed inhuman, and sadly in Simpson’s case and that of others the performance could only be sustained by chemical supplements. Recent high profile drug cases have brought the issue to the centre of debate about the Tour once again. Does catching at least 3 more cheats this year show that the sport is inherently addicted, or does it indicate that it is, at last, successfully cleaning up its act? For those riders who are doing it entirely clean it must be intolerably frustrating to keep finding others who regard breaking the rules as a price worth paying as long as they are not caught.
The wider argument about drugs in sport remains. In the case of young female gymnasts, for example, a case can be made that their training regime has depleted their developing bodies of a range of necessary substances and that replacing these artificially could be justified as therapeutic rather than performance enhancing as such. A recent biography of an American gymnast details the horrors of the gruelling training she undertook, though in the end she concludes that it was necessary for success and that she did not regret it.
I suspect most Tour de France cyclists would also be positive about their experience. Australian Simon Gerrans won a stage this year and claims that he took up cycling on the advice of a neighbour and an Australian cycling legend Phil Anderson. Gerrans had been injured and Anderson told him to ‘get on his bike’ as part of the recovery process. With the rising cost of fuel and Australia’s growing obesity problem, perhaps the Gerrans solution is one we might all adopt.
The Tour also provides some lessons on how to cover a sports event on television. Following its brilliant use of background pieces on the culture of the cities where World Cup football matches took place, the SBS team, led by Les Murray, has made the geography and gastronomy of France, Spain and Italy an integral part of the coverage. One friend I know has his Michelin guide open with its maps and local information to supplement what he sees on the screen. The pictures vary from brilliant panoramas of the countryside through which the Tour is passing to extraordinary close-ups of the strain on the faces of the cyclists as they cope with mountain climbs or bunch sprints. The guys who fly the helicopters and ride the motorcycles to bring us these pictures are almost as much the heroes as the cyclists.
Everyone agrees that the commentary team, particularly the exemplary Phil Liggett and the knowledgeable Paul Sherwen, who rode the tour several times himself, provide a superb blend of information and sense of excitement. They almost make the intricate tactics and strategies of the Tour comprehensible to non-experts. Unlike many of our local sports commentators who still bombard us with meaningless statistics or a radio-type treatment of events we have just seen, the Tour boys focus on relevant information which extends our understanding of what we are watching.
Finally, while the commentators are well aware of their Australian audience and the importance of covering the performance of tour favourite Cadel Evans and perennial stars such as Robbie McEwen and Stuart O’Grady, this is never at the expense of the person or the team which is doing the business at the time, no matter where they come from. I hope, though I don’t expect, when it comes to the Olympics that there will be the same appreciation of those who happen to be competing against our Australian athletes.