WHIPPING BOY: Lance Armstrong

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The Lance Armstrong hypocrisy

By Fazeer Mohammed

Carnival babies may not like it, but sport is the real pressure-reliever. Not just for us in this twin-island madhouse, but everywhere else in the world where big men and women playing games takes on a dimension way beyond its evident triviality.

And more than merely an opportunity to exult or agonise over the results on the field of play, sport's wide and varied dimensions - with parallels to everyday life that incorporate all sorts of metaphors, symbolism and comparisons – allow for the sort of moralising and deep introspection that would actually lead the uninitiated to believe that it is really deadly serious business and not just games people are playing.

That's where it becomes the great pressure-reliever and emotional outlet, for we can over-react in matters of sport in a way that would be considered gravely irresponsible in real life.

Take the reactions to American Lance Armstrong's admission of cheating last week. An obsessively compulsive, single-minded human being does whatever it takes to win in a culture that celebrates being number one as the ultimate objective.

He takes banned substances, bullies others into doing the same, threatens those who resist and seeks to destroy the careers and lives of those who would dare to expose his dishonesty on the way to winning seven consecutive Tour de France titles and being acclaimed as arguably not just the greatest cyclist who ever lived, but a global sporting hero and inspiration who overcame life-threatening testicular cancer and through his foundation—Livestrong—and life story offers hope to millions of overcoming whatever hurdles they face, not just debilitating illnesses.

Following the airing of the interviews with Oprah Winfrey, the condemnation has been coming from all sides. As Armstrong himself has acknowledged, the reaction is expected and deserved, given his strenuous and strident denials previously, even in the face of overwhelming evidence and testimonies from his own teammates. But really, what has he done that is any different from others who have been exposed as cheats, who denied and denied and denied that they were doing anything underhand, even as eyebrows and suspicions were raised over their phenomenal performances, only for them to give tearful apologies and beg for forgiveness when their guilt was proved beyond any shadow of a doubt?

And more importantly, how does it compare to those who, through intimidation and deception, have caused conflicts to escalate, wars to be fought and hundreds of thousands of lives to be lost, all for the sake of fulfilling narrow, self-serving national strategic purposes? Of course, there is no comparison. Still, we need to be thankful that there are so many fallen sporting idols around who serve as a lightning rod for our puritanical outrage.

It's easy to beat up on a Ben Johnson or a Marion Jones when their deceit on the way to becoming Olympic and world sprint champions is exposed, and rejoice when they are publicly vilified and punished. We seem to take a perverse pleasure in tearing them apart, sermonising from the pulpit about moral rectitude and behaving as if some diabolical, unpardonable sin has been committed, more grievous even than a criminal act in everyday life.

If you think this is an exaggeration, just ponder on the consequences for high-profile sporting cheats when they are caught and compare it to what happens to politicians and financial smartmen when they are found to be stealing public money and depositors' funds to the tune of billions of dollars. Indeed, it is a little distressing to see the condemnation heaped upon sporting personalities who are perceived to have done something against the spirit of the game, to say nothing of those who have flagrantly violated the rules. Yet people in public life and private business are exposed as thieves and...nothing happens.

Look at the pressure Dwayne Smith endured last Wednesday night into Thursday for running out Dwayne Bravo when he was caught backing up too far nearing the end of their Caribbean T20 cricket fixture in St Lucia.

The issue of a well-established rule of the sport actually being considered against the spirit of the same game is another story, but the point I'm getting at is that the Barbadian captain faced so much criticism for his action from all quarters that he felt it necessary to apologise publicly to the all-rounder and the entire Trinidad and Tobago team the following night, and that for doing something that is perfectly within the rules!

Why do we hold sport and therefore sportsmen and women to a higher level? Why is it an accepted part of everyday life that elected officials will thief, lawyers will lie and businessmen will wheel and deal, but sporting performers dare not violate the written or unwritten codes of their specific discipline?

In the 1974 sports-comedy movie The Longest Yard, themed around an American football game between inmates of a maximum-security prison and the well-trained, well-prepared prison officers, there is a scene in which one of the inmates berates the prisoners' quarterback, played by Burt Reynolds, who is serving time for fixing professional games. Even with some of his teammates behind bars for murder, robbery and other heinous crimes, Reynolds is advised that what he has done is even more despicable, his crime of "shaving" points off a football game being described as "un-American."

And that seems to be the attitude towards sport generally. Everyday cheating is just a way of life. Cheating in sport? Well, that's a whole other story.

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