Archive for February, 2009

Reaching the heights, touching the void

27 February 2009

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Although I love professional cycling, despite its flaws, I have delayed reading Matt Rendell’s biography of the Italian climber Marco Pantani, who won the Tour de France and the Giro in 1998, and died of a massive cocaine overdose in a hotel room six years later, dogged by (well-founded) drugs scandals. The book got fine reviews, and Rendell knows the sport well (he is (co) author of one of the best books about being a team domestique). The reason I put off reading it was that I knew it would depress me.

The best way to summarise this is through a couple of lines in the final chapter:

Looking back, Marco’s successes, like any number of world records, gold medals, and winning sequences in recent sporting history have a phantom quality. … They weren’t events at all, but phantasmagorical experiences with no clearly definable reality that existed chiefly in the emotions they caused in millions of indivdual minds. The emotion most associated with Marco is euphoria, yet we know now that it was triggered by the poisons that flowed through his veins and made his flamboyant style possible.

It’s worth exploring this further. One of the most exciting sights in cycling is a climber attacking the field and gaining the minutes he needs to win – and Pantani’s stage win at Les Deux Alpes in 1998, when he attacked on a climb in atrocious conditions, descended recklessly, then climbed again, to make enough time on Ullrich to seal his Tour victory – was one of the most exciting days of racing in my lifetime.

But in a (literally) forensic analysis, Rendell demonstrates that Pantani had been blood doping through the use of EPO almost from the start of his professional career. At the same time, he kicks away one of the cycling fans’ supports. Almost all of the successful cyclists in the 1990s used EPO (Bjarne Riis, tour winner in 1996, has admitted it; Ullrich hasn’t but the evidence is against him, there are still questions over Armstrong’s win in 1999). So the fan’s defence is that EPO use must  have levelled the playing field – while quietly disregarding the talented but non-using Charly Mottet, who never finished the Tour higher than fourth. Rendell suggests that athletes respond differently to EPO, and that Pantani’s success might just suggest that his body was better attuned to the drug.

So far, this ia familiar story about 90s cycling – or even modern professional sport. But there are two other stories in Rendell’s narrative as well. The first is about the nature of cycling in Pantani’s native region of Emilia-Romagna, with its strong Communist traditions. The first chapter of the book places cycling, and Pantani, deep in their social milieu.

The second is perhaps more revealing. Rendell suggests that Pantani’s sporting success disguised a pattern of mental illness that might have otherwise been recognised more clearly – and which seemed to be inherent in his growing cocaine abuse after 1999. More: this might have been part of his make-up as a sportsman which enabled him to take the risks on descents which contributed to some of his victories, and also to some of his crashes. The other half of this, of course, is that some of the experts who tried to help Pantani identified this problem – but the cyclist’s fame and wealth, and some of his advisors who lived inside this bubble and benefited from both, meant that it was always impossible to address it.

The initial newspaper article, which led to the book, can be found here.

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Armstrong’s former teammates

27 February 2009

An interesting spat at the launch of the Tour of California between the cyclist Lance Armstrong and the former cyclist, now journalist, Paul Kimmage, who has long held the view that Armstrong has used banned performance enhancing drugs. When Armstrong made his comeback, Kimmage called him “the cancer in the sport”. Armstrong never forgets anything that anyone says, but all the same you’d be unlikely to forget a remark like that.

At the Tour of California news conference, Kimmage asked a question about riders who had returned from drugs bans:

“You’ve spoke recently about the return of Ivan Basso and Floyd Landis, who have returned after their suspensions, compared to David Millar – that they should be welcomed back like he was. But there was one obvious difference in that Millar admitted his doping whereas these guys have admitted to nothing. What is it about these guys that you seem to admire so much?”

Armstrong did get round to answering the question eventually, but reminded Kimmage first of his previous remark:

“When I decided to come back, for what I think is a very noble reason, you said, ‘The cancer has been in remission for four years, our cancer has now returned’ – meaning me, that I am the cancer! … You are not worth the chair you are sitting on with a statement like that, with a disease that touches everyone around the world.”

And here’s the answer to Kimmage’s question:

“You have to consider what has happened to David [Millar], who I admire a lot [and] who was caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Is it heroic that he has now confessed? Some would say so. I applaud him that he is back and I hope that he is very successful. Floyd [Landis], on the other hand, there is a lot of evidence against him and there is a lot of evidence in his favour. Floyd does not believe he is guilty, so to appease people like you he can’t confess.”

Obviously Lance Armstrong never used performance enhancing drugs. He has said so repeatedly and has won libel battles in several countries to prove it. But the departure of his former team mate Manuel Beltran from the Tour de France for a positive test prompts an interesting list of those who rode for Armstrong in his Tour-winning years who subsequently have tested positive: apart from Beltran, there is Frankie Andrieu, Tyler Hamilton, Roberto Heras, and Floyd Landis.

For me the moral sludge around this was exemplified by Discovery’s offer of a contract to Ivan Basso at a time when he was deeply implicated in the findings from the Operation Puerto investigation into blood-doping. (One of the bags in the good doctor’s lab was code-named with the name of Basso’s dog; subtle.) At the time no other team would touch him, but Discovery saw him as a potential tour winner. Of course, the deal fell through when Basso admitted his involvement, and he has just returned from a ban for drugs use.

Armstrong has said in public that the exclusion of Astana from the Tour de France is effectively motivated by a grudge against him by the organisers. But since the Astana team is now run by Discovery’s management, I’d have thought that the Tour was just taking a necessary precaution: since you’re more likely to get caught these days, show us that you are clean by running for a while without any positive tests.

Orlando ‘Cachaito’ Lopez

21 February 2009

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It seems odd, even now, to think that the guitarist Eliades Ochoa (then 51) and bass player Orlando ‘Cachaito’ Lopez (then 64) were drafted into the line-up for 1997’s Buena Vista Social Club recording to provide some youthful energy to the recording.  Cachaito died earlier this month, at the age of 76.

Lopez came from a famous Cuban musical family – the nickname was to distinguish him from his uncle, Orlando ‘Cachao’ Lopez – and after the success of Buena Vista, he was given the opportunity by World Circuit records to make his only solo recording. It is a wonderful record, drawing on different styles but given a consistency by Lopez’ Cuban rhythms, and I still play it often. It may be the best solo record made by a bass player. Really.

Audio clips from the record can be found here, at World Circuit.

Watching Kite Runner

20 February 2009

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Watching Kite Runner on a DVD recently, and not having read the book, I was struck by a few things. The first was that the epic scene which shapes the entire story – the kite ‘battle’ in which Amir halts another boy’s winning streak just in time to save his father’s record – is a wonderful filmic moment, one of those sequences for which film could have have been invented, with its movement, colour, scale and illusion.

And perhaps this connects to the strongest resonance for me, in the portrait of the exiled Afghan community in California, and the way that such communities re-form themselves – in conditions of hardship and poverty – in such a way that they become reflections of their home cultures, still trapped inside the amber. Some of Britain’s Anglo-Asian film-makers have touched on this (Bend It Like Beckham comes to mind) but the picture of that Afghan world in California seemed, to this British viewer, both honest and nuanced. And by chance the next morning I read a review of Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland which touched on cricket being played in New York.

The link between New York and cricket may not seem obvious, but look out of the window on the drive to JFK and you’ll see dozens of games being played on any half-suitable patch of land.The games are all being played by immigrants from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the West Indies (“there’s a limit to what Americans understand,” says a character towards the end of the book, “the limit is cricket”).

The third thought is that for all the courage of the producers in filming so much of the dialogue in Dari, with subtitles, which would conventionally be regarded in Hollywood as a surefire formula for losing money, it must have helped that the timings of the story (1978-2000) conveniently bookended the period of Russian, then Taliban, rule, rather than the American/”Allied” occupation. In the circumstances the line, “The invaders always leave” is almost too knowing. Maybe the film’s success is also an indication that David Putnam’s attempt, in his unsuccessful sojourn as Head of Pictures at Columbia, to make pictures which had meaning beyond the borders of the United States, was simply ahead of its time.

There’s also the memorable speech about the only sin being theft (“Every other sin is a variation of theft… When you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness.”). Amir’s father Baba, initially unsympathetic, turns out to be the “centre of good”, when he faces down a Russian soldier at a checkpoint, and makes the call to the General to let Amir ask for the hand of his daughter (“If not now, then when?”). Of course, the plot turns, twice, on theft; one framed, of a watch; one real, of a child.

Grace and danger

3 February 2009

I spent today working at home, watching the snow fall in London, and listening to John Martyn records by way of a modest tribute to the guitarist, who died last week at the age of 60. My wife and I accumulated about five or six between us, all on vinyl, during the 70s and 80s, from one of the first, Stormbringer, with Beverley Martin, to an early compilation, So Far So Good (which included both May You Never and Solid Air), and Grace and Danger, recorded after the breakup of his marriage to Beverley. But not Solid Air, regarded as the best of the early records.

Stormbringer was intended as a Beverley Martin solo record (John was supposed to play guitar on it, but ended up writing more of the songs). On the cover he looks young to the point of innocence, as well one might in Woodstock on 1970, but already the music is moving away from folk, with jazz and blues influenced arrangements on some tracks.

By the time we get to Grace and Danger, a decade later, with the break-up with Beverley pouring out through every crack, the sound has become uniquely personal mix of electric folk, rock, jazz and reverb. His version of The Slickers’ great reggae song Johnny Too Bad is mesmerising (as you can hear for yourself in the version embedded at the top of the post, in concert in 1981). Much of the sound comes from the interplay between Martyn’s guitar and the fretless bass of John Giblin, played with the same elan as Jaco Pastorius. Phil Collins, who plays drums on the record, can never have played on an edgier set. Island Records’ boss Chris Blackwell, a friend of both Martyns, famously delayed releasing it for close to a year because he found it too painful to listen to.

One of the unsung heroes in the evolution of John Martyn’s sound is the (acoustic) bassist Danny Thompson, (who is also one of the reasons  why Pentangle’s sound was so distinctive), who played with Martyn throughout his career. A late version of Solid Air, the song written for Nick Drake after his nervous breakdown, with the pair duetting, is worth visiting YouTube for.

The notion of ‘grace and danger’ sums up for me the contradiction we expect from artists and performers – a tension which explains why so many die younger than they should. Although I was never a huge fan of John Martyn, I liked the fact that he never really moved away from the edge as he got older, even if Clapton’s mainstream cover of May You Never earned Martyn a tidy sum in royalties. And just to prove that Oasis didn’t just steal from The Beatles and the Rolling Stones: the line, ‘What’s the story, morning glory’ is on Stormbringer.