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Monday
Sep032012

Useful Idiots Transcript

Scott O'Raw reflects on Phil Liggett's recent appearance on the Ballz Radio show. He argues that comments made there are not simply examples of dated, confused thinking and are, instead, something much more serious.

In 1987, the senior reference librarian at the Library of Congress announced that "We have been unable to identify this phrase among Lenin's published works". But if we assume that that, unlike Athena, it did not spring, fully formed, from the head of Zeus, someone, somewhere, must have coined the term, "Useful Idiot". That it was not the erstwhile Premier of the Soviet Union, communist revolutionary and political theorist, Vladimir Illyich Lenin scarcely matters. It has slipped, like a sleeper cell, into the dark hinterland of our lexicon, waiting to be be woken whenever the need arises.

That need arose this week.

"Useful idiot" was historically used to mark out for ridicule those decadent Westerners, such as George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and Doris Lessing, who naively believed that their Soviet sympathies meant something to that crazed Georgian, Uncle Joseph Stalin. In reality, it is said, the upper echelons of the Kremlin viewed them with nothing more than contempt. But, out of self-interest (if not amusement), Moscow was happy to have them around.

Beyond the binary universe of the long-gone Cold War, the phrase has found continuance in the parallel universes of modern political jargon, but still, pejoratively, describing those puppeted propagandists, guided for a goal they don't fully understand.

It's not the first time that Phil Liggett has appeared in public to defend Lance Armstrong, and been criticised as nothing more than a mealy-mouthed minion, hostage to the private-jetted moneyed lifestyle that association with the Texan brings. Yet his appearance on the orthographically perverse Ballz Radio -- curiously presented as video -- was a trip down a rabbit hole of wilful ignorance, misinformation and agitprop that would have united the seemingly polar opposites of Stalin and Lewis Carroll.

In the 15 minutes that this interview takes up......Actually, we shouldn’t elevate Phil Liggett’s union with host Darren Scott as an interview. Frost / Nixon was interview. This was mano a mano where both matadors were replaced by the rodeo clowns; cretino a cretino, if you will. However, across the 15 minutes of his appearance on Ballz, Liggett repeatedly implores us to ask why USADA is doing this, calls the organisation “nefarious”, fails to understand the difference between a federal prosecution and one concerned only with anti-doping, and, most disturbingly -- as opposed to the farcical and hurtful suggestion that Armstrong can cure cancer by motivational speaking -- states, categorically, that he can prove so-called agents, one can only assume working at the behest of USADA, have offered vast, life-changing sums of money for testimony against his friend.

There is more. More weary, sighing drivel than you would normally be expected to bear should it come to pass that hell is being stranded for eternity in the company of every housemate from every season of Big Brother. But I won’t bore you with the horrific details. However, if after having polished off The Apprentice box set, The Only Way is Essex and re-runs of last year’s Tour of Beiijing you suddenly discover you’ve got 15 minutes before you lay yourself down on the railway line in weary anticipation of the 2:25 express train to Manchester, feel free to look this one up for yourself on YouTube. And if the train is running late, which trains are wont to do, your last remaining moments can be spent in the company of the "Bikini Weather" girls that Ballz has the balls to offer.

Instead, let us concern ourselves with why we should be paying attention to a 69 year old man that some would argue should have hung up his microphone shortly before Armstrong’s first Tour win in 1999.

Phil Liggett was born, as you would expect from the rolling burr of his affable accent, near Liverpool, in the small town of Bebbington.

In 1967, as an amateur cyclist, he turned down the offer of turning professional to concentrate on writing articles in Cycling magazine, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and The Observer about the races he was competing in.

By 1972 he was technical director of the Milk Race, later renamed as the Tour of Britain, a position that he held until 1993. And aged only 30, became the youngest ever international commissaire for the UCI.

As well as being the International editor for Cycle Sport magazine in 1997 and writing numerous books on the sport, Liggett has commentated on 13 Olympic Games, 40 Tours de France and his voice has been heard by the vast majority of cycling fans the world over. In America he has worked for ABC, CBS and NBC. Here in the UK with ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC. In Australia with the SBS network and Foxtel as well as Super Sport in South Africa, where he has a house and game farm. Incidentally, the aforementioned South African broadcaster, Super Sport, fired the host of Liggett's interview, Darren Scott, following a racist remark made live, on-air.

In 2005, Liggett was awarded an MBE and four years later inducted into the British Cycling Hall of Fame.

Gaffs have been legion. His Liggettisms, as they have come, at first affectionately then pejoratively, to be known, were even collected and published in book form. Yes, I know; another oxygen producing tree culled so that you or I can sit with an expression of mild amusement while excavating our bowels.

Earlier this year, he suggested that the original organiser of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin would have laughed his head off at the inclusion of BMX as an Olympic sport. He also said that mountain biking was not suitable for the Olympics either. Much to the ire of both communities, as you would imagine.

Phil Liggett’s life work has been cycling and his legacy, at least until recently, was as “the voice of cycling”. So it is clear that what Phil Liggett says will, at least, be heard. Will it be listened to, though? Will it be believed?

In isolation, Phil Liggett’s appearance on the Ballz Radio show can be seen as the hollow shell of what was once a well-respected broadcaster. It’s far too easy to paint this latest gaff as nothing more than a sad indictment of advancing years. Let's wish him well, you may say, carefully place a tartan shawl over his lap and watch Nursie trundle him over the hill to the David Coleman Care Home For The Terminally Bewildered Commentator.

But these comments don’t come in isolation. They are starting to form a dangerous mantra, intoned by a coalition of the unwilling, murmmered over and over to make good on Josef Goebbels promise that “A lie repeated often enough will eventually become the truth.”

From the moment he announced his decision not to opt for arbitration, Lance Armstrong has stuck to the line that USADA’s investigation is nothing but a witch hunt. He draws the illegitimate comparison to the unsuccessful federal investigation against him, that any evidence garnered is from discredited witnesses, that he never failed a drugs test and that he is still the winner of 7 Tours de France.

As Joe Lindsey notes in his recent Boulder Report sports journalism, especially in his and Lance’s homeland, the United States, is suffering from a terminal contagion; or, as Joe would have it, “The sports column was preceded in death by the ability to understand cognitive dissonance and reading comprehension. It is survived by Twitter.” He cites Rick Reilly at ESPN, Michael Rosenberg at Sports Illustrated, Buzz Bissinger at Newsweek and Arthur Caplan at MSNBC who add to the choral prayer; they let it resonate and let it mutate. As others join in, they let the tone change, let it wander. Then they let it flow into the realms of “well, even if he did, we don’t care”, “He’s American, and we’d prefer ANY American to those scurulous Europeans”, “they were all at it, so Lance is still the best”, and carry into discordant overtones of “cancer survivor”, “father of 5” and “inspirational hero”.

Here I must apologise to that sometimes great nation, mostly populated by genuine, kind-hearted people. Because it is from sea to shining that this transformative song is most keenly heard -- and where it desperately needs to find a home. Lance Armstrong stopped caring a long time ago what the French, or anyone else, thinks about him. The only country that matters is the good ole U.S. of A. And it is here where opinion really counts.

Yes, the casual American sports fan could read interviews with Paul Kimmage. He could read the articles written by Shane Stokes at Velonation. He might be provoked to actually read the charging letter sent by USADA to Lance and the others undertaking the “massive doping conspiracy” at U.S. Postal. He could then come to the correct conclusion that a federal case, and activities that one can be convicted of by the federal government, are completely different from a case brought by a national, anti-doping agency. An agency mandated by WADA whose code is mandatory for all sports wishing to be pasrt of the Olympic Family, and an agency whose jurisdiction was legally re-affirmed in an American court of law by Judge Sam Sparks.

He may also note that USADA has evidence from within the statute of limitations, and that corroborating evidence from before that time can still be admissible. I see, he may proclaim, the statute will only apply when the evidence only comes from a period longer than 8years ago.

A little light reading helps him understand that passing a doping test is not a 100% guarantee that the athlete is not doped to the eyeballs. Indeed, results, he would see, can be ruled out when it was clear there is evidence of fraud or concealment; even for results out with the limitation. 

And our our sports fan may realise that by placing Michele Ferarri on a retainer, U.S. Postal were attempting to ensure that there was no level playing field when it came to doping, and that such a charge was laughable to begin with.

But in the end, why bother? Surely it is easier for the casual sports fan to be just that; to casually beach themselves on the sofa of intellectual indolence while soaking up the airwaves of mis-information and deceitful propaganda?

Was it ever thus? Arguably, yes, but the problem is not that, in the heartland of brand Lance, there are the faithful falling to supplicant knees and seeking to embrace a truth that bears little or no resemblance to reality. That most over-exposed pop band, Lance and the Acolytes, can whistle whatever tune the like. They always have. They always will.

Tuning the dial a few spaces in either direction should provide us with some alternatives; especially, you would hope, from that most progressive of bands, the new kids on the block, the professional peloton. Instead, there is only the low-level static hum or the shoe-gazing solipsism of their latest chart-topper "How I Won My Stage".

Adopted from the Sicilian mafia, Omertà has become part of the cycling lexicon as much as the word  peloton itself. But the code of silence is actually never that. The Omertà never asks you to say nothing. It only requires that you to say nothing about certain things. Can it be reasoned, then, that by not speaking about Lance Armstrong, Johan Bruyneel, Michele Ferrari and the others that USADA have charged or prosecuted, the Omertà still prevails?

The same is true of our governing body, the UCI. Whose tune will they whistle to? Other than announcing that the Tour of Hangzhou is to be postponed -- presumably treating us to the rare pleasure of a double album tour in 2013. Unless they actually mean 'cancelled', but just have a distaste for the C word? -- the UCI have made Sistercian monks look positively raucous. So quick to pronounce on the guilt of others, the UCI have, like the pirates they truly are, kept to the code with Cap'n Lance.

One thing is certain, though; while a wish and desire to 'put all of this behind us and move on' is laudable, it leaves in its wake the vast empty spaces of easily mailable opinion. It is in these areas where the "useful idiots" such as Phil Liggett are currently finding it all too easy to settle.

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