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A mysterious contagion is blighting the planet; earth has fallen prey to zombies. Am I going to write a review of the $200 million Hollywood blockbuster World War Z? No: I’m commenting on the Tour de France, which starts for the 100th time on Saturday, June 29.
Cyclists now resemble the undead against whom Brad Pitt battles in the film. Doped-up automata, unresponsive to their surroundings, they are like corpses controlled by chemists. At least that’s what our media would have us believe.
Cyclists have always taken dope. When the Tour first started in 1903, strychnine and cocaine were the drugs of choice. By the late 1950s, synthetic stimulants, especially amphetamines, were regularly used to sustain competitors through 23 days of the most exacting physical demands. Jacques Anquetil (1934-87), who won the Tour five times, spoke openly about how cyclists didn’t opt to use drugs: they just couldn’t do without them. No one cared. Only after Britain’s Tommy Simpson died during the 1967 Tour, did cycling – indeed, sport generally – begin to wonder whether competitors needed protecting from themselves. Anti-doping rules were introduced in the early 1970s, but have had little effect in cycling.
Last year, during his confessional interview with Oprah Winfrey, Lance Armstrong was asked if doping was part of the process required to win the Tour. He answered: “That’s like saying we have to have air in our tyres or water in our bottles. It was part of the job.”
If Armstrong is to be believed, drug taking in cycling is not seen as a transgression: it is normal behaviour. Armstrong was a scapegoat: someone blamed for the wrongdoings of others, especially for reasons of expediency. It made more sense to hang the most famous cyclist in history out to dry rather than examine the entire culture of the sport. Armstrong merely confirmed what most people have known, or at least strongly suspected for years. Cycling is a sport in which doping is an everyday practice.
Here’s my question: do we care? The media tell us we do, or, if not, we certainly should. The media themselves care: they have turned Armstrong from one of the greatest heroes in world sport to the biggest cheat in history. I’m not sure the rest of us feel the same way. Some years ago, I was involved in a round table radio discussion in which one of the discussants suggested that we should stage two Tours de France: one for riders who used dope, the other for those who chose to compete au naturel. “It’s possible,” I replied. “But who’d watch the clean Tour?” We’ve all become used to athletes pushing themselves towards and, occasionally, beyond the limits of the human body. We love intense, unbridled competition. Sport conceals its own preparation: we won’t see the riders taking drugs, yet we’ll know they are using something; and we will enjoy the competition just the same. People like eggs for breakfast; they don’t need to see chickens that produced them fed.
If consumers were so turned off by cycling’s close association with drugs, the Tour wouldn’t have lasted long after 1973 when the first authentic tests revealed the widespread use of drugs by riders. Since then, a steady crescendo has built, every Tour yielding cases of doping. The 1998 Tour was so affected by doping that it was known as Tour du Dopage. And yet the race continued to grow in popularity. In terms of live spectators, the Tour is the biggest sports event in the world – by some margin: over 12 million people throng the streets over the period of the race. The Tour is only thinly popular outside Europe, but an estimated 2.5 billion people are exposed to it, counting those who read about it in newspapers. Television corporations pay about $200 million per tour to the organizers. Sponsorship deals are valued in dozens of millions.
Despite Armstrong’s evidence about the ubiquity of drugs in cycling, despite 2006 winner Floyd Landis’s claim that the cycling’s corrupt governance has created an environment where cheating is required, and despite last week’s admission by Jan Ullrich, who won the Tour in 1997 that “almost everybody back then took performance-enhancing substances,” enthusiasm for this year’s Tour will be undimmed.
There is a disconnect between how the media reacts to doping in sport and how fans think and feel. Consumers don’t share the delirium that follows a positive test. We have doubts, but they rarely interfere with the satisfaction we take from the Tour. In common with all other athletes, cyclists are not there to provide decency, moral direction or lessons in propriety; they are not supposed to be paragons of rectitude whose most iniquitous habit is an occasional e-cigarette. They are supposed to send a sudden, strong feeling of excitement or exhilaration through us. When they do, they solicit our approval. We’re not in denial: we know they will probably be using dope. Sport is a world long since purged of goodness.
In the mid-1970s, it wasn’t unusual for bands to spit and throw drinks at their audience. Fans felt as if they’d been anointed: conferred divine or holy status by their favoured bands. Or maybe they were just too drunk to care. At any rate, they spat back and hurled drinks, making gigs a kind of ritual exchange of bodily fluids and lager. Fans loved it and, most bands didn’t mind the reciprocal abuse.
Rihanna wouldn’t have enjoyed it one bit. Earlier this week, when mingling among her adoring fans at a concert in Birmingham, she offered her outstretched arm as rock stars often do nowadays. One adorer clung to her arm for a little longer than she would tolerate. Remember: fans like the communion that touching, holding, or being covered in phlegm often brings. Rihanna did not quite … err … grasp this and walloped the clingy fan with her microphone. The video of this incident is right here. Unrepentant, Rihanna explained the strike tersely: “That bitch [the fan] won’t let me go.” There was no apology or hint of remorse.
RiRi is right up there with Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. Still only 25, the Barbadian born Robyn Rihanna Fenty has made eight albums, appeared in four movies and is currently on her fifth tour, the latest a sell-out (a standing ticket at the Birmingham concert would have the fan back £95). Forbes lists at number four in their top global celebrities, estimating her wealth at $53 million (£34.25 million). In common with many female divas, much of her income comes not from music, but from advertising deals. As well as endorsements with the likes of Vita Coco and Nivea, she has her own fragrance, Reb’l Fleur. She has 75.5 million likes on her Facebook page and a twitter following roughly the same size as the total population of Peru (30 million). Her all conquering Diamonds tour stretches over eight months and across all continents. Even before the tour started Rihanna had won 6 Grammy Awards and sold 37 million albums and 146 million digital tracks. If last year belonged to Lady Gaga, 2013 is Rihanna’s year.
A couple of weeks ago, I was called by a Colombian journalist, Sandra Janer, who writes for a Bogotá-based magazine Fucsia. She wanted to know why Rihanna is so popular. Her logic was that Rihanna has been involved in a well-documented abusive relationship with rapper Chris Brown, to whom she has returned, despite, it seems, taking some beatings from him. Sandra Janer’s assumption was that people instantly lose respect for women who take punishment from a man yet forgive him repeatedly.
Actually, I replied, Rihanna’s tumultuous relationship with Brown is exactly what makes her fascinating. Far from being turned off, we become perversely intrigued: why would a fabulously wealthy celebrity who, it would seem, is spoiled for choice when it comes to men, opt for a guy who knocks her about? I was reminded of an argument by cultural historian and film critic Neal Gabler. “Celebrity really isn’t a person. Celebrity is more like a vast, multicharacter show,” he suggests. “Celebrity is narrative, even though we understandably conflate the protagonist of the narrative with the narrative itself and use the terms interchangeably.”
While he doesn’t define what he means by narrative, I presume he refers to an unbroken account, consisting of incidents and people that connect to form an overall story. The story may be a chronicle, or a history to record events and it may incorporate elements of a fable in the sense that it conveys a moral or lesson. Without diminishing RiRi’s vocal talent or the quality of her music, her global popularity is still astonishing. But it makes more sense if we view her less as a person, more as a narrative, a story with a moral. And, of course, the violent relationship with Brown is an integral, perhaps the most important, part of her story. Celebrity culture functions as a kind of drama we stage in our own minds. Our dramatis personae are the actors we see in the popular media and we write our own scripts, according to our own imaginations. It’s impossible to see an image or hear the name of Rihanna without thinking about her turbulent love life.
Where’s the moral in her story? It still isn’t clear. Some say Rihanna is right to endure cruelty in the pursuit of true love, while others think she is a sucker and that her conduct is typical of a powerful woman who is simultaneously disempowered. That’s the fascination: we debate this endlessly without ever reaching a definite conclusion; the moral of Rihanna’s narrative is indeterminate.