The events of the past 2 weeks have generated more media coverage about the sport of professional cycling, not least here in Brazil, than for a large part of the past twenty years.
As a fan of the sport for more than two decades I had become accustomed to the fact that, much as for those who participate in the sport, the fan’s passion for cycling can be a very lonely affair. In recent days however, as words such as EPO and ‘omerta’ have become mainstream and our friends start posting comments about the Lance Armstrong affair on Facebook we have had to become accustomed to suffering not alone but in the company of others as our favourite sport has become the centre of attention like never before. Cycling’s 15 minutes of infamy, raises a host of questions about contemporary sports but also about brands and sponsorship, the contemporary media landscape and the relationship of trust and credibility between consumers and these two institutions. Also, and perhaps most significantly for a country which is preparing to host the worlds second and third greatest sporting events (the Tour de France remains in number one position for me) it brings under the spotlight the role which athletes and those in power play in the governance of major sporting and entertainment events.
As an innocent 18 year old in the late 1980s i personally hitchhiked my way around France and Spain following the continents two premier cycling events. At the time I think I was perhaps the only cycling groupie, attracted by what appeared to be the toughest sporting challenge imaginable and the glamour and European ‘coolness’ epitomised by my fellow cycling fans, Kraftwerk and the Style Council. Even back then the Tour had its media and sponsor caravan and was not free of drug related controversy. The Dutch PDM team (their shirt remains in my wardrobe until today) which in 1991 was forced to retire its team from the Tour de France because of what at the time was announced as ‘food poisoning’ but subsequently was revealed to be due to a bad batch of anabolic steroids. Their principal sponsor Phillips soon cut its sponsorship but the doping controversies which continued to plague the sport remained largely off the mainstream radar. In many ways the simplicity of cycling, meant that the sport in itself remained largely unchanged since these initial controversies. What has undeniably changed however is the context around the sport. In part this reflects a bigger cultural change in which the bicycle has become a lifestyle symbol with both ecological and economical benefits for many of the planets urban dwellers. But also throughout the last two decades cycling began to attract a greater number of corporate sponsors who sought to associate their brands to this lifestyle. As with any emerging entertainment genre an icon was needed to personalize the phenomenon for the masses and as if by some ironic magic an American athlete with the perfect backstory (recovery from testicular cancer) emerged to become the face of cycling to what had been a previously elusive US market.
As Lance Armstrong bought a new sense of global appeal to professional cycling, so media interest and money began to roll in. However, one crucial fact that continues to astound me is that companies which speak so frequently about brand equity and consumer trust is the complete lack of responsibility they seem willing to assume within their role as sports sponsors.
Nike are not alone but of course but their recently terminated involvement with Lance Armstrong will be the most scrutinized. Whilst such brands may wish to argue that they too have been cheated by the sporting heroes they helped to create, it is undeniable that their role in creating an icon in a sport with such an obvious culture of doping could instead have created the conditions for a ‘clean’ sport at a time when the elevated status of Armstrong (which they helped to build) allowed him to effectively bully those around him into compliance. Recent research from the University of Alabama found that Americans who adopt the ‘Just Do It’ attitude and place a high value on action and ‘doing’ can suffer from to a loss of objectivity in their seeking of information, inducing a conformation culture in which dissenting voices are marginalised. One must wonder if Nike has become a victim of it’s own slogan in this instance? Beyond cycling the question must be asked as to how long other sports sponsors will continue to turn a blind eye to controversy surrounding the sports they sponsor? At this very moment a number of black English footballers are considering forming a black players union, out of frustration at the racism they continue to encounter with the workplace. How many of the 2014 World Cup sponsors would allow such public behaviour within their own workplace?
In recent years advocates of social media have been quick to laud the power of tools such as Facebook and Twitter as a positive force for change in exerting pressure on brands to be more transparent and more responsible. However, if the cycling controversy as well as that of the BBC presenter Jimmy Saville (exposed after 20 years of abuse of women, children and hospital patients) have shown, cultures of silence can continue to exist even in an age of social networks and wall to wall media coverage. In the case of cycling a small number of sports journalists, most notably the ex-pro cyclist Paul Kimmage, tried for years to bring the doping issue to the front page of their newspapers. They were however consistently marginalised and criticised and now in the case of Kimmage sued by the very organisations which they have now seen proved to be at best inept and at worst corrupt. Such instances must surely raise the question as to whether more media is better media?
Somewhere within the media maelstrom and press briefings of recent days, one voice that seems to have been missing is that of the fan or as he or she is more popularly known, the consumer. Who cares about how we feel as our sport is destroyed from within and devoured from outside. What does it matter to us that we purchased the yellow wristbands or felt a connection to our mobile company because they sponsored a cycling team? It has been argued that brands continue to sponsor sporting icons because their on-field performance is all that matters. I do not expect my sporting heroes to be the perfect role models and I’m grateful that not all sportsmen and women are like Roger Federer. But i do not expect them to destroy the very sport they claim to represent from the inside. At a time when my native Britain has its first ever Tour de France champion, the worlds best professional team (Team Sky) and one of the icons for those who are trying to change the sport’s attitude to cycling from within (David Millar) i can see many reasons to be positive about the future of my beloved sport. But as someone who for many years found myself defending the same sport against those who labelled it as drug fuelled and corrupt i find it impossible not to think of the famous rhetorical question posed by John Lydon of the Sex Pistols in 1978 “ever get the feeling you have been cheated?”