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Old 08-13-2005, 02:19 PM   #1
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Default [Sports Central Newsletter] #127 - The Greatest Sports Fraud?

The Sports Central Newsletter
August 2005 - Issue #127

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|-- IN THIS ISSUE... --|

* Words From the Editor
* The O-Files: "The Rise of Small Sports"
* Editor's Pick: "Create Your Own Steroid Apology"
* Shots From the Lip: "The Greatest Ever or the Greatest Sports Fraud?"
* Hot Topics From the SCMB


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Hello folks,

The word "sports" no longer just encompasses the "Big Four": baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. Just flip over to ESPN and you'll see everything from weightlifting to poker to ... gasp ... competitive eating. This expansion of the sports world is what inspired this issue's "O-Files" column by Brad Oremland. Read on below to find out why no sport is safe from being pushed into obscurity.

Now, most who receive this are American, but Mike Round reveals a little-known fact about legendary American sports hero Lance Armstrong: he is not beloved around the world like he is in the States. How could anybody be critical of a courageous cancer survivor? "Shots From the Lip" has the answer and plenty of details on cycling's place in Europe.

-- Marc James
Sports Central Owner & Founder
mailto:[email protected]



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|-- THE O-FILES --|

By Brad Oremland

U.S. sports fans used to talk about the ?Big Four? -- baseball (MLB), basketball (NBA, men's NCAA), football (NFL, NCAA I-A), and hockey (NHL). In the last few years, trendy folks instead used ?Big Three and hockey?. All four sports -- and let's concentrate on the professional leagues -- have their diehard fans, but the universal character of all but the NFL is rapidly diminishing.

The sports world is growing. The rise of cable television has at least partially leveled the playing field between the ?major? sports and the fringe sports. Invent a game where people run and do something to a ball, and there are folks who will become addicted to the event. Put it on television, and they'll watch it. Increasingly, television networks and their advertisers are finding audiences for sports that previously never saw the light of day, and it is slowly becoming difficult to tell MLB, the NBA, and especially the NHL from these ?new? sports.

It's easy to find tennis or golf on ESPN2, and while few casual fans will tune in to anything but the majors, the same can very nearly be said of the NHL. Women's sports, especially basketball, are finding a growing audience. MLS, Arena Football, even Little League Baseball are all televised now. Pseudo-sports such as auto racing and poker tournaments command wide audiences. Fifteen years ago, these competitions were novelties, but today, they have devoted audiences that compete with and occasionally overshadow the Big Four.

Nowhere can this be seen so dramatically as in the NHL. Although the league is back in business after a season-long hiatus, only the hockey fans seem to care. Other sports fans made it through a year without hockey and didn't seem too upset about its absence -- they filled the gap with whatever was on ESPN2 instead. It's not that the NHL has lost these people forever, but they have found hockey to be easily replaceable -- it's more about interest in a competition than what that competition really is.

That doesn't mean casual sports fans in the USA will never get excited about hockey. I'm not one of the diehards, but I find the Stanley Cup playoffs to be the most engaging postseason in North American professional sports. But casual fans get excited about Wimbledon and Tiger Woods and heavyweight championship fights, too. Well, maybe not heavyweight championship fights any more, but other weight classes have grown in popularity recently. Average people even get excited about sports they normally ignore or even profess to ?hate?, things like World Cup soccer, Tour de France cycling, and Olympic track and field. Late enough at night, people even get pretty enthusiastic about World's Strongest Man competitions.

Personally, the only one I couldn't do without is the NFL. And most North American sports fans, I think, are the same. Football has such a regular schedule that it's easy to keep track of games and records, and the sport's audience hasn't fractured along lines of race or class the way the NBA, NHL, MLB, and MLS have.

Even the NFL may face challenges, though, with "Monday Night Football" moving to ESPN in 2006. During the second half of boring "MNF" games last year, I sometimes had trouble switching back from figure skating to football. The advent of FOX Sports, ESPN Classic, the Tennis Channel, NFL Network, and other such stations has meant stable audiences for sports that used to receive little or no exposure in the United States. Leagues like the NHL, as they dwindle in popularity, more closely resemble these ?fringe? sports than they do national mainstays like the NFL. And no sport is safe.


Brad welcomes your feedback: mailto:[email protected]?subject=O-Files
(Copy and paste the address if it isn't clickable.)


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There have been 16 new articles posted on Sports Central in the last week. Check them all out at: https://www.sports-central.org. The Editor's Pick is:

By Greg Wyshynski

Rafael Palmeiro's vague, pointless statement after his steroid suspension certainly lacked the fire and brimstone of his Congressional testimony. SC's Greg Wyshynski has a way for fans to turn any boring apology/prepared statement into hours of "Mad Lib" fun!




By Mike Round

After an unprecedented seven victories in the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong said farewell on the Champs-Elys Dees, Paris, clad -- as ever --in yellow. Since 1999, Armstrong has held a vice-like grip on the world's toughest sporting event and the chasm he leaves behind will be impossible to fill. But, despite the record and the ease of his victories, is Lance Armstrong the greatest ever in a sport stained by drugs, shadowy "doctors," and political infighting?

Despite the fact that an American has won Le Tour on nine of the last 17 renewals, the U.S. public remains largely oblivious to the great race. Moronic and parochial sports writers in the States, bred on a diet of the NFL, NBA, and MLB, dismiss the tour as a "who cares?" event, as Jay Mariotti did on ESPN's "Around the Horn" recently. In comparison to the above-mentioned sports, which go largely unheeded outside of North America and maybe Japan, cycling has global significance.

Hands up who watched cycling before Lance Armstrong? Who's heard of Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, or Bernard Hinault? Who knew they held sporting events in places called L'Alpe D'Huez, Col du Galibier, or Luz-Ardiden? Who used to think a domestique was a maid?

Quite a few devotees of the OLN channel can now answer yes to some of those questions. But to a European, L'Alpe D'Huez, La Plagne, and the rest of the brutal Alpine and Pyrenean climbs are some of the most famous sporting venues on earth. Cycling is king in many European countries and second only to soccer in the rest. To the people of the Benelux region (Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg), the French, Swiss, Italians, Spanish, half of Colombia, and the Danes, the first three weeks of July are the highlight of the sporting calendar.

Millions of Europeans are glued to their TV sets for three weeks a year, for six, seven, or eight hours a day. Hundreds of thousands line the roads between stages. Mainland Europe shuts down for Le Tour.

The race was a wholly European preserve until upstart American Greg Lemond broke the European grip in 1986. Lemond was universally hated by the Europeans, particularly the French, for having the temerity to take the crown from five-time winner Bernard Hinault, co-incidentally his teammate on the La Vie Clair team.

Hinault was the team leader, but Lemond had his measure in 1986 and broke the veterans iron resolve on L'Alpe D'Huez in one of the tour's epic and most moving moments. The two crossed the line together, hands linked, but Hinault had tried and failed to crack the American all the way up the brutal ascent. It was compulsive viewing and a sporting moment no one who witnessed it (including me) never ever forget. Hinault retired and France mourned his defeat for years after.

The French never forgave Lemond for dethroning the magnificent and temperamental Hinault. After a freak shooting accident, Lemond was forgotten as a bad dream, but in 1989, he was unexpectedly back with a vengeance. This time, the French had the bespectacled, blonde, and pony-tailed Laurent Fignon as their hero and he responded with customary gusto with cavalier attacks in the Pyrenees and Alps to build a lead over Lemond.

But the French had sowed the seeds of their own destruction by designating the final day as a time trial into Paris. Lemond, with his revolutionary (at the time) customized bike, specifically designed for time trials, and excelled at the discipline, unlike the buccaneering Fignon. The Frenchman's 50-second lead had evaporated by the finish line, despite a gut-wrenchingly epic ride by Fignon, and Lemond took the final yellow jersey by eight seconds. The French were heartbroken. Some even booed at the victory presentation. Significantly, the final stage has never been a time trial since. More significantly, a Frenchman hasn't won since Hinault in 1985.

The story of how Greg Lemond broke the hearts of the French in 1986 and 1989 relates directly to how Lance Armstrong is perceived in Europe. The French never forgave Lemond and Armstrong, who, to a bitter nation, are cut from the same cloth. The cycling press, dominated by L'Equipe in France, despises Armstrong. He's seen as too aloof, too touchy, too corporate, and too good to be true.

"Never to such an extent ... has the departure of a champion been welcomed with such widespread relief," opined L'Equipe the day after Armstrong's final podium appearance.

His battle with testicular cancer is well-documented. His battle with drug allegations likewise. The cycling governing body, dominated by the French, tests Armstrong more than any athlete on earth. Apart from failing a routine test in 1999 for corticoid triamcinolone, which is an ingredient in a skin cream he used for saddle sore, Armstrong has never failed any drug test. His association with disgraced "doctor" Michele Ferrari was never proved to amount to anything other than consultations on altitude training, despite the best efforts of French newspaper Le Monde and London Sunday Times sportswriter David Walsh to prove otherwise.

The main benefactor of Michele Ferarri's "medicines" was the Festina team and its leader, Richard Virenque, a Frenchman. After a ban, Virenque, a ferocious mountain climber who would have won a Tour de France if there were no time trials, was welcomed back into cycling's fold and even won a King of the Mountains jersey.

Besides his nationality, the other problem Europeans, and particularly the French, have with Armstrong is that he is incredibly dull. He may have beaten cancer in an incredible story of bravery and determination and he may have a glamorous rock star girlfriend but on a saddle Armstrong lacks any kind of charisma. He uses the lone discipline of time trialing to establish leads over his opponents and rides defensively in the mountains to see off any challengers. It's not exactly exciting viewing and is the antithesis of how Hinault, Fignon, and Merckx rode. The French want success allied to style and charisma. Armstrong just grinds out success with meticulous preparation and ruthless efficiency -- all very un-Gallic traits.

I'm a great admirer of Armstrong and his achievements, but, that said, he has had some major advantages in his career and by no means, in my opinion, can be described as cycling's greatest ever.

Firstly, and most importantly, Armstrong has benefited from a complete lack of any respectable rival for the last seven years, bar, at a stretch, 1997 winner Jan Ulrich. The current crop of cyclists is generally woeful, with the only possible exceptions being Alexander Vinokourov and Ivan Basso. The last two Tours have seen virtually no opposition to the Texan. The only time Armstrong's winning margin has slipped below 4 minutes and 40 seconds since 1999 (a huge margin for those not familiar with the sport) was in 2003 when Armstrong spent a week with a stomach illness and still won by over a minute.

In comparison to Miguel Indurain, a five-time winner between 1991 and 1995, Armstrong has had it easy. During his victories, Indurain had to see off the likes of Virenque, 1996 winner Bjarne Riis, dashing Frenchman Laurent Jalabert, 1998 winner (the late) Marco Pantani, 1988 winner Pedro Delgado, Laurent Fignon (winner in 1984) and the dynamic Italian Claudio Chiappucci. The list of the vanquished is a who's-who of Le Tour in the latter part of the century.

Clearly, Armstrong watched and learned from Indurain. His style was different, preferring a smaller gear and higher pedaling speed, but the tactics were pure Indurain. Establish a strong time trial and react defensively in the mountains. Neither man was inspiring to watch, but both were winners.

Merckx was the antithesis of Armstrong, who makes absolutely no attempt to win any other event in the cycling calendar bar Le Tour. Merckx won five Tours before retiring in 1978 and every other big race in the calendar, too. Merckx also competed in an era loaded with great cyclists.

Any serious cycling journalist or fan will pick the flamboyant Belgian as the greatest cyclist that ever lived. Hinault, an aggressive climber and fine time trialist, who also won five tours against mighty opposition, would be on most lists as second best ever. At the very best, Armstrong cannot be placed above third, and even that's debatable. Having said that, his achievements are monumental and he deserves to go down in history as one of America's greatest ever sportsmen.


Mike welcomes your feedback: mailto:[email protected]?subject=SFTL
(Copy and paste the address if it isn't clickable.)



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(Thanks for reading! Next issue will arrive on 09/04/05.)

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