Cincinnati @ Miami: Cincinnati
Kansas City @ Buffalo: Kansas City
Atlanta @ Carolina: Carolina
Minnesota @ Dallas: Dallas
New Orleans @ New York Jets: New Orleans
Tennessee @ St Louis: Tennessee
San Diego @ Washington: Washington
Philadelphia @ Oakland: Philadelphia
Tampa Bay @ Seattle: Seattle
Baltimore @ Cleveland: Baltimore
Pittsburgh @ New England: New England
Indianapolis @ Houston: Indianapolis
Chicago @ Green Bay: Green Bay
Washington @ Minnesota: Minnesota
Seattle @ Atlanta: Seattle
Cincinnati @ Baltimore: Cincinnati
Detroit @ Chicago: Detroit
Philadelphia @ Green Bay: Green Bay
St Louis @ Indianapolis: Indianapolis
Oakland @ New York Giants: New York Giants
Buffalo @ Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh
Jacksonville @ Tennessee: Tennessee
Carolina @ San Francisco: San Francisco
Houston @ Arizona: Arizona
Denver @ San Diego: Denver
Dallas @ New Orleans: New Orleans
Miami @ Tampa Bay: Miami
Seattle @ Arizona: Seattle
Tampa Bay @ Atlanta: Atlanta
St Louis @ Carolina: Carolina
Cincinnati @ Detroit: Detroit
San Diego @ Jacksonville: San Diego
Houston @ Kansas City: Kansas City
Buffalo @ Miami: Miami
New England @ New York Jets: New England
Dallas @ Philadelphia: Philadelphia
Chicago @ Washington: Chicago
San Francisco @ Tennessee: San Francisco
Cleveland @ Green Bay: Green Bay
Baltimore @ Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh
Denver @ Indianapolis: Denver
Minnesota @ New York Giants: New York Giants
Carolina @ Tampa Bay: Tampa Bay
San Francisco @ Jacksonville: San Francisco
Dallas @ Detroit: Detroit
Cleveland @ Kansas City: Kansas City
Miami @ New England: New England
Buffalo @ New Orleans: New Orleans
New York Giants @ Philadelphia: Philadelphia
Pittsburgh @ Oakland: Pittsburgh
New York Jets @ Cincinnati: Cincinnati
Arizona @ Atlanta: Atlanta
Washington @ Denver: Denver
Green Bay @ Minnesota: Green Bay
Seattle @ St Louis: Seattle
I’ll just whip through these this time:
Buffalo @ Cleveland – Cleveland
New Orleans @ Chicago – New Orleans
New England @ Cincinnati – Cincinnati
Detroit @ Green Bay – Green Bay
Seattle @ Indianapolis – Seattle
Baltimore @ Miami – Miami
Philadelphia @ New York Giants – Philadelphia
Jacksonville @ St Louis – St Louis
Kansas City @ Tennessee – Tennessee
Carolina @ Arizona – Carolina
Denver @ Dallas – Denver
San Diego @ Oakland – San Diego
Houston @ San Francisco – San Francisco
New York Jets @ Atlanta – Atlanta
New York Giants @ Chicago – Chicago
Green Bay @ Baltimore – Green Bay
Cincinnati @ Buffalo – Cincinnati
Detroit @ Cleveland – Cleveland
St Louis @ Houston – Houston
Oakland @ Kansas City – Kansas City
Carolina @ Minnesota – Minnesota
Pittsburgh @ New York Jets – Pittsburgh
Philadelphia @ Tampa Bay – Tampa Bay
Jacksonville @ Denver – Denver
Tennessee @ Seattle – Seattle
New Orleans @ New England – New Orleans
Arizona @ San Francisco – San Francisco
Washington @ Dallas – Dallas
Indianapolis @ San Diego – Indianapolis
I’ve been busy in the second half of this week, but I can assure you that my prediction for Kansas City-Philadelphia was for a Kansas City win – I already have predictions for all 17 weeks done just in case, though they may need an increasing number of tweaks as the season goes on. I’ve already made two changes for this week, but still have more home wins than the average Mark Lawrenson set of Premier League predictions.
Houston @ Baltimore: Houston relatively comfortably
Green Bay @ Cincinnati: Green Bay by a healthy margin
New York Giants @ Carolina: Carolina to pick up their first win but it’ll be tight
St Louis @ Dallas: Dallas by a score
Cleveland @ Minnesota: Minnesota easily, now that Cleveland are tanking for Teddy
Tampa Bay @ New England: Tempted to go for an upset but I’ll go for a safe New England win
Arizona @ New Orleans: Might be tighter than I originally thought but New Orleans
San Diego @ Tennessee: A narrow Tennessee win
Detroit @ Washington: My one change, as I’ve switched to a comfortable Detroit win
Atlanta @ Miami: Perhaps a surprise, but I’ve got a narrow Miami win down, and have since pre-season
Buffalo @ New York Jets: Buffalo but it could be close
Indianapolis @ San Francisco: San Francisco comfortably
Jacksonville @ Seattle: Seattle obviously
Chicago @ Pittsburgh: The other change I’ve made, as I’m now going for a Chicago win
Oakland @ Denver: Denver easily
San Francisco @ St Louis: San Francisco but it’ll be close
Baltimore @ Buffalo: Baltimore but judging by recent performances, it could be a tight one
Cincinnati @ Cleveland: Cincinnati should be comfortable winners
Chicago @ Detroit: Detroit to inflict a first defeat on Chicago
Seattle @ Houston: Two teams with 100% records but I’m going for the home team Houston
Indianapolis @ Jacksonville: Indianapolis by a lot of points
NY Giants @ Kansas City: Another win for Kansas City
Pittsburgh @ Minnesota: Minnesota win at Wembley
Arizona @ Tampa Bay: Tampa Bay finally winning, providing Freeman’s still the QB
New York Jets @ Tennessee: Tennessee to win a battle of the average QBs
Philadelphia @ Denver: Denver to put a lot of points on the board
Washington @ Oakland: Washington, though it might be close
Dallas @ San Diego: Despite San Diego’s recent positive form, I think Dallas will edge it
New England @ Atlanta: The first test for the new New England offense, but I think they’ll fail. Atlanta
Miami @ New Orleans: Originally I had a Miami win but I think I’ll change that to a narrow New Orleans win
This seems to be a fashionable thing to do. Here’s my bandwagon-jumping attempt to decide which teams are hot and which are a sack of shit, with their records after week 2:
1. Seattle (2-0)
2. San Francisco (1-1)
3. Denver (2-0)
4. Green Bay (1-1)
5. Houston (2-0)
6. New Orleans (2-0)
7. Atlanta (1-1)
8. New England (2-0)
9. Chicago (2-0)
10. Kansas City (2-0)
11. Miami (2-0)
12. Cincinnati (1-1)
13. Detroit (1-1)
14. Indianapolis (1-1)
15. Dallas (1-1)
16. Tennessee (1-1)
17. Baltimore (1-1)
18. St Louis (1-1)
19. Philadelphia (1-1)
20. San Diego (1-1)
21. Minnesota (0-2)
22. Washington (0-2)
23. Arizona (1-1)
24. Buffalo (1-1)
25. Carolina (0-2)
26. Tampa Bay (0-2)
27. New York Giants (0-2)
28. Pittsburgh (0-2)
29. New York Jets (1-1)
30. Cleveland (0-2)
31. Oakland (1-1)
32. Jacksonville (0-2)
There’s no time like the first time. This is my first full season watching the NFL fan. On the one hand, I’m inexperienced at this thing. On the other, I’d like to think that I’ve got a different perspective on these things. I see a lot of the professional pundits love the established teams, whereas because I’m new to this business, I’m just calling it as I see it without context, which could work both ways. So I’m going to take advantage of this and throw out a few risky predictions. If they don’t come off, I can pass it off as inexperience. If they do, I look like a genius.
5 things I think will happen
1. Oakland will be bad. Very bad
The way I see it, while the NFL is incredibly competitive with loads of very good teams (and that’s something we can be grateful for), there are a few bad teams, and there’s a bit of a gulf developing between the very good and very bad teams. This could be one of those seasons where a team goes 0-16. And if any team is going 0-16 this year, it’s the Raiders.
The Raiders have a very inexperienced quarterback who has looked ropey so far. Their best offensive player always gets injured. Their offensive line is non-existent. I don’t see where the points are going to come from, and they don’t look great defensively either. In their division, they face Philip Rivers, Alex Smith and Peyton Manning. I’d say they have about 3 winnable games on their schedule at the most – San Diego at home, Jacksonville and the New York Jets. I struggle to see how they can score more points than a team that’s better than that.
2. The Ravens won’t make the play-offs
I think there’s a realistic chance that Baltimore won’t make it to the post-season. The Giants dropped off quickly last season despite not losing a load of key personnel like the Ravens have. The Bengals look worthy challengers, the Browns have improved, you can’t write off the Steelers, and there are a few decent contenders for wildcard spots. But it’s not just that.
I watched America’s Game last night, and while I know documentaries of that sort are going to focus on the emotion and narratives rather than the sporting detail, it really demonstrated how much of the Ravens’ push for the Super Bowl was helped over the line by the unity of the team in the wake of a number of events, including Art Modell’s death, Ray Lewis’ retirement, and a number of players coming to the end of their contracts. Even if that only added an extra 2 or 3 per cent to their performance, that was the difference. This year, they won’t have that, and that could be the difference between 10-6 while peaking at the right time and 8-8 with no wildcard spot.
3. The Cardinals will pick in the top 5 of the 2014 Draft
The schedule for Arizona is very tough this year. Not only are they the odd one out in arguably the strongest division in the NFL, but they also have to face the NFC South teams, Detroit, Philadelphia and the AFC South teams. Their one saving grace is that they only have to travel to their weaker opponents – they go to Jacksonville, Philadelphia, Tennessee, Tampa Bay and, in probably the toughest trip, to New Orleans, whereas they will welcome the Colts, the Texans, the Falcons, the Lions and the Panthers.
However, I’m not convinced by the signing of Carson Palmer, who the Raiders were happy to let go in favour of signing a QB they are now making their back-up because he’s not good enough to start. They have also lost their top draft pick, Jonathan Cooper, to injury, while 6th round pick, wide receiver Ryan Swope, has retired due to concussion issues. That basically leaves them at 7 draft picks, which isn’t ideal for a team that has lost 11 of its last 12 games. They’re not in as big a mess as the Raiders, the Jets or the Jaguars but they’re in that group just above them, mainly because of the schedule.
4. This will be a classic season
I did follow last season at a distance, and I realised come the end that it had been a very good season. The teams in the money rounds were playing at a very high standard, and the games were more often decided by individual brilliance rather than mistakes. I remember discussing this with my friends, cynically remarking “but 3 of the 4 teams in the Championship Games are the same as last season.” The response I got was “yeah but this is totally unexpected.” And I see the point now. A bit.
This year will be even better, though. Many of the teams are in something of a transition phase – the Steelers and Giants, two of the top teams of the last decade, are on the decline without being terrible, possibly along with the Ravens who have already been hit by losses this year; the Bengals and Seahawks are on the way up; and there are a group of teams who could be the next to hit the latter category, on the verge of becoming good again. As well as that, the NFL has a new generation of quarterbacks who are in the process of becoming big stars, while Brady and Peyton Manning enter the last few years of their career, the “savour it while you can” stage.
5. British interest in the NFL will continue to grow quickly
I’ve noticed the NFL gradually becoming fashionable again in the last 6 or 7 years. The TV coverage of the Super Bowl got ramped up, the “alternative” kids in school started talking about it, and then the NFL decided to stage games at Wembley. Maybe I’m completely wrong on this and the level of interest has been relatively stable since the 1980s, but I get the feeling the NFL’s popularity here has increased a lot since Super Bowl XLII (Pats-Giants, which had some great narratives that people could engage with even if they weren’t familiar with the sport), which was certainly the first one I took an interest in.
If you mention the NFL to most British football fans, though, they usually react cynically – “American rubbish” etc. And yet the same people will probably bemoan the lack of parity in the Premier League, or about how money is ruining everything – the exact two things that aren’t happening to the NFL, because of the “we’re only as strong as the weakest team” mantra. It’s everything British football fans want from the Premier League, and I think people are starting to wake up to that.
Yes, it’s a bit corporate on the surface, the game does take time to get used to, and it does feel a little distant over there on the other side of the Pond, literally and metaphorically. But it’s becoming more relevant. Each year the coverage here of the Super Bowl increases a little, and I think that’s a sure sign of more people being interested. That this is coinciding with a new era for the NFL – new teams at the top, a new generation of superstars, and potential international expansion – is only going to help that transition from minority sport to something a sizeable number of people follow.
My (safe) predictions
1. New England Patriots*
2. Miami Dolphins
3. Buffalo Bills
4. New York Jets
1. Cincinnati Bengals*
2. Baltimore Ravens
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
4. Cleveland Browns
1. Houston Texans*
2. Indianapolis Colts*
3. Tennessee Titans
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
1. Denver Broncos*
2. Kansas City Chiefs*
3. San Diego Chargers
4. Oakland Raiders
1. Washington Redskins*
2. Dallas Cowboys
3. New York Giants
4. Philadelphia Eagles
1. Green Bay Packers*
2. Minnesota Vikings
3. Detroit Lions
4. Chicago Bears
1. Atlanta Falcons*
2. New Orleans Saints*
3. Carolina Panthers
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1. San Francisco 49ers*
2. Seattle Seahawks*
3. St Louis Rams
4. Arizona Cardinals
AFC Wildcard Games
New England (3) beat Kansas City (6)
Cincinnati (4) beat Indianapolis (5)
NFC Wildcard Games
Atlanta (3) beat New Orleans (6)
Seattle (5) beat Washington (4)
AFC Divisional Playoffs
Houston (1) beat Cincinnati (4)
New England (3) beat Denver (2)
NFC Divisional Playoffs
San Francisco (1) beat Seattle (5)
Green Bay (2) beat Atlanta (3)
Houston (1) beat New England (3)
San Francisco (1) beat Green Bay (2)
Super Bowl XLVIII
San Francisco beat Houston
Brace yourselves, loyal readers (yes, all three of you): I’m trying to show I know things about another sport. Emphasis on “trying” – it’s my first “proper” season of following the NFL so expect many of these predictions to be wildly inaccurate. I’m getting the first two weeks out of the way in one go and at least two weeks before most of the games even take place because I feel like it. To the seasoned American football analyst, these probably appear the equivalent of Mark Lawrenson’s Premier League predictions, but I don’t care.
Baltimore at Denver
Ah, the first Thursday night game, a rematch of last year’s classic play-off game, etc. My gut feeling on this is that the Ravens are weaker having lost so many personnel from last year – even though the actual ability of the squad may not have dropped (especially factoring in the return to full fitness of the likes of Ngata and Webb), the unity of the squad will have been disrupted and they won’t be on the same psychological high that they were during the play-offs when they had momentum and had Ray Lewis barking them on. So I fancy Denver to win this comfortably.
New England at Buffalo
Insert bland platitudes about the Patriots’ tight end situation here. But even though Tom Brady doesn’t have many targets to throw to, Buffalo currently have doubts about who is supposed to be doing their throwing to begin with, with EJ Manuel having a “minor knee procedure” and Kevin Kolb out with “concussion-like symptoms”. This is only going one way – I’m going for the easy prediction and saying New England will batter the Bills.
Seattle at Carolina
My season preview tells me the Panthers are projected to finish 4th in NFC South, and comfortably so at that. I think that’s a bit harsh, though admittedly I’m having a hard time working out who they could finish above. It could be quite a competitive division. The Seahawks, on the other hand…well, so much has been said about how wonderful they are going to be. We’ll see. But I’ll go with Seattle here, though it won’t be a total rout.
Cincinnati at Chicago
Said season preview reckons the Bears will finish 3rd again in NFC North. Again, I think the criticism within it is a bit harsh – they collapsed last year but still looked to be a good team overall, and 10-6 isn’t a dreadful record. I detect a certain amount of cynicism about Marc Trestman, which you can neither prove nor disprove at this stage. As for Cincinnati, I think they could potentially edge out the Ravens to win their division. But despite that, it’s at Soldier Field, so I’m going for a marginal Chicago win here.
Miami at Cleveland
That season preview thinks Miami will finish behind Buffalo. I found that a bit amusing. I fancy the Dolphins for a wildcard spot this year. Yes, I know, you shouldn’t read much into the free agency haul, but they are a team on the up (even if it’s gradual). I think they could surprise this year. As for the Browns, they seem to be making small improvements to the team but I’m not sure it’s enough of a step forward in a tough division. And I think they’ll lose this one too – going for Miami to start strongly with the benefit from the new signings.
Minnesota at Detroit
NFC North is such a good division this year. Any of the four teams could conceivably be in the play-offs come January. I think this will be a close contest. Detroit seem to be making some effort to cure their issues of last year, and even then they weren’t too far off the pace. Minnesota ended last season well, and Adrian Peterson and all that, but there are still doubts about Ponder. I’m going for a slightly surprising win for Detroit.
Oakland at Indianapolis
The Raiders are a mess. The Colts aren’t. Indianapolis will win easily.
Kansas City at Jacksonville
I like where the Chiefs are going. They already had half a good team last year. They were just lacking the half that would stop them losing 14 matches. And they had other issues as well… Jacksonville were pretty woeful too but there is less cause for hope there than in Missouri. Kansas City to win comfortably in their first game under Andy Reid.
Atlanta at New Orleans
I can’t really talk about Bountygate and Sean Payton and all that. So I’ll just say this – New Orleans will be better this year, and Atlanta may not be. The component parts may be there for the Falcons but they had such momentum last year it might prove tough to replicate their form, especially with such a tough schedule this time. As it’s in the Superdome, I’m going for New Orleans.
Tampa Bay at New York Jets
Oh come off it, you know what’s going to happen here. Tampa Bay.
Tennessee at Pittsburgh
This is an intriguing one. The Titans may be a bit more competitive this year, while the Steelers are a team on the decline with their key players of their previous generation now likely to be past their peak. I’m going for Tennessee, which might shock those American pundits who talk up the big teams all the time.
Green Bay at San Francisco
I don’t want to have to predict a Packers defeat, but this isn’t too far removed from the situation at this point last year. Green Bay have tried to fill some of the holes in their game from last year, but the 49ers could equally claim to have improved. All rests on Kaepernick… I think San Francisco will win this by a similar margin to the first game last year.
Arizona at St Louis
The Cardinals are my dark horse shout to be picking first in the 2014 Draft. They’re in a very tough division and I’m not convinced by their roster – having an ageing Carson Palmer at the helm of the offense wouldn’t fill me with confidence if I was a fan. Meanwhile, the Rams enter their second season under Jeff Fisher after being more competitive than perhaps expected in his first there. St Louis at home should take this with room to spare.
New York Giants at Dallas
The Giants, like the Steelers, are probably past their peak, and they have begun to shed some of their successful generation. I think they’ll continue to slip this year. As for Dallas, I’d be surprised if they don’t finish at least 2nd with the Giants and the Eagles struggling, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t win this too.
Philadelphia at Washington
Pundits have said this depends on whether Robert Griffin III is back. If he is, Washington will win comfortably. If he isn’t, Washington will win by a small amount. So Washington, obviously.
Houston at San Diego
The second Monday night game starts at 03:20 on Tuesday morning here. So I guess I’ll miss another Houston win. The Chargers are another team in decline and it’ll take another couple of years to turn them around, while the Texans aren’t too far from a first Super Bowl appearance, especially in a weak AFC.
New York Jets at New England: New England easily
St Louis at Atlanta: Atlanta but it’ll be close
Cleveland at Baltimore: Baltimore but they’ll have to work quite hard for it
Carolina at Buffalo: Carolina comfortably
Minnesota at Chicago: Chicago marginally
Washington at Green Bay: Green Bay, the margin depending on the Redskins QB
Tennessee at Houston: Houston by a healthy margin
Miami at Indianapolis: Indianapolis but not by much
Dallas at Kansas City: Kansas City but another close game
San Diego at Philadelphia: San Diego but could go either way
Detroit at Arizona: Detroit by a single figure margin
New Orleans at Tampa Bay: New Orleans comfortably
Denver at New York Giants: Denver with ease
Jacksonville at Oakland: Jacksonville because they are slightly less bad
San Francisco at Seattle: Seattle but much closer than last year
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati: Cincinnati with a narrow win
Let’s talk performance-enhancing drugs. Someone has to.
On the surface, it’s been a good couple of years for the doping authorities. Lance Armstrong was nailed, no major current sportsmen proven to be doping, and so few positives that they could point in the direction of EPO and steroids and say “that’s in the past”.
But is that really the case? Is top level sport clean, or do we just want it to be clean?
There’s a danger in finding out about doping in sport because it destroys the naivety of our default position as sport fans – that everyone at the top is clean and performing wonderful feats at the limit of human capability. We don’t like to ask questions because we’re afraid of what we’ll find out. Once you start asking doubting one feat, you end up doubting every single one.
For instance, Britain really enjoyed doing well and winning lots of medals at the 2012 Olympics. It’s easy to put this down to more abstract factors or things that are difficult to prove, like “better training regimes”, “better organisation” or simply “the home crowd factor”. No one is suggesting that British athletes doped. No one is even asking “why did that guy go from mediocre to brilliant?” or “how did she suddenly become so good?” It’s just taken as a given that British athletes did well because they’re great and their coaches are great and the fans are great. British athletes would never dope – we’re better than that. Really?
The doping question is that bad memory you want to suppress and pretend is gone but is actually still there lodged in the back of your brain. But now with Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell and Nesta Carter, three of the fastest men over 100m in history, testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, this is no longer something that we can suppress or say was happening in the past. It is still here – doping is almost certainly still widespread in sport. It’s a bleak reality, but the question isn’t “of the top sportsmen and women, who’s doping?” but “of the top sportsmen and women, who’s clean?”
The context of these latest big name positive tests is quite important in understanding the whole issue.
A decade ago, there was much competition for that same 100m crown. Americans dominated – Maurice Greene won in Sydney in 2000, a year after setting a new world record of 9.79 seconds. Between Sydney and Athens, Tim Montgomery appeared as a rival, edging Greene’s mark by 0.01 in 2002, before being charged with taking PEDs and eventually being stripped of his times. Nonetheless, the Athens games saw another American winner of the 100m with Justin Gatlin the surprise winner. Gatlin would go on to set a personal best of 9.77 in 2006, equalling the new record set by Powell in 2005, before he too was found out shortly after, the second positive test of his career (he managed to get out of the first in 2001 on the grounds that he was taking medication for attention deficit disorder).
Then Usain Bolt turned up and everyone stopped thinking.
Think about that for a minute – the world record went up incrementally over a period of 6 years; athletes were unable to go more than 0.01 seconds faster, and when they did, they were usually found out to be taking PEDs. Every single one of those guys has now either tested positive or, in Greene’s case (courtesy of Angel Heredia), been strongly linked to PED usage. And then suddenly this young Jamaican guy comes along and smashes their times, eventually doing a 9.58 – that’s two tenths of a second faster than the maximum known dopers were able to achieve. Over 100m, that’s a lifetime. By now, the Bloody Suspicious Klaxon should be blaring in your head.
But will you see the media discussing this? No. For them it’s best to continue the illusion, if it is indeed that. Build them up and then knock them down when it’s convenient. And besides, we shouldn’t speculate, should we? Innocent until proven guilty and all that…
But this is the problem. Montgomery never tested positive. Neither did former women’s 100m record holder Marion Jones who was in the same circle, Victor Conte’s BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative) operation. This also included numerous other leading athletes, including Dwain Chambers, as well as MLB stars, including record-breaker Barry Bonds, and NFL players. Very few of these actually tested positive. It was eventually proven through the law courts, not in the labs.
The golden rule of doping is that the dopers are always ahead of the testers. This has always been the case through history. The old adage that cheats never prosper is a lie – they often do. Many are found out but I’m sure there are some that will never be.
Focusing on athletics and in particular sprinting for a minute, why do we assume that they aren’t doping? Aside from blind faith, we’re told that testing is better and that the doping authorities are winning the fight. The evidence? Well, various stats and figures. And then Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell test positive. Admittedly this is only informed speculation, but dopers tend not to dope for a one-off, mainly because it doesn’t work like that – there’s a good chance Gay and Powell have been doing this all along.
If major athletes like them can slip through the net, how can we believe that testing is better and that the doping authorities are winning the fight? They have some nice heads to mount on their wall now but if anything this raises more questions about them than actually being something to celebrate.
Sprinting had successfully rid itself of the image of being riddled with doping on account of one athlete that we the lay people could all recognise as being great just by watching. Cycling is trying to follow this. Now that Lance’s head is on a spike and his competitors of the early 2000s have virtually all owned up too, and with no evidence of any major positives (i.e. anyone the public would recognise) in the last couple of years, the issue of doping is once again being brushed under the carpet by most of those in the mainstream media. And yet if you dip beneath the surface, as in athletics, there is plenty of speculation.
The problem is Team Sky are pretty much the US Postal Service/Discovery Channel team reincarnate. From the super-organised nature of the team to the style in which it goes about its racing there’s very little in it – in general, it’s the win-at-all-costs approach. But they have also learned from USPS – whereas Lance was always confrontational in his rebuttals about the doping questions (until it became obvious), Dave Brailsford and Sky have tried to be softer and more open. Having the might of News Corporation behind you probably helps too.
The arch-propagandists of the sport lead us to believe that doping in cycling tailed off after Lance retired, Floyd Landis was caught and the authorities “started taking things seriously”. Times went up, which is supposedly evidence of this (because, you know, it’s not like the teams would intentionally dope a little bit less to make it seem less obvious – isn’t that right, Alberto?). Sky are part of this new generation and have the support of Britain behind them, a nation that is starting to fully embrace the sport for the first time. But that may be the problem.
Imagine you’re in charge of investigating doping in cycling – do you want to be the one to upset the whole nation of Britain by outing Bradley Wiggins or Chris Froome as dopers, therefore implicating Team Sky, Dave Brailsford and, by extension, the enormously successful British cycling operation as a whole? Do you want to face the wrath of the British media? Do you want cycling to lose even more credibility?
Tyler Hamilton’s recent autobiography was a game-changer for a lot of people, including myself. The main issue that came out of it was not that USPS riders were doped up to the eyeballs – we knew that anyway. It was that the cycling authorities knew the USPS riders were doped up to the eyeballs. They knew that the dominant team in cycling was cheating, that every other team was cheating, and they brushed it under the carpet for the sake of viewing figures. Corruption, basically.
The concerning thing is there’s nothing to stop that happening again. There’s nothing to say that that’s not going on today – that Team Sky are doping, that the cycling authorities know about this, and that they are covering it up to keep the British and everyone else who believes in the Tour de France and the sport of cycling happy. Because money is king. And if you piss Murdoch off, there ain’t much hope for you…
And the implications of this aren’t just for cycling. They are for athletics, football, tennis, Formula One, the NFL – you name it. What the USPS case proves is that sport authorities are willing to allow their sport to become a charade, because people don’t care. The media dare not ask questions and most casual observers aren’t inclined to ask questions proactively. They prefer to watch believing what they see is real competition between clean sportsmen. They prefer not to question. After all, our natural instinct when watching sport is to believe what you’re seeing is genuine in the moment, and then question it later on.
Ultimately if the media revealed the whole thing to be a drug-fuelled sham, they would sell less newspapers or have less viewers. And even then, the Armstrong example proves that even if you provide hard evidence that a beloved sportsman is doping, half his fans won’t believe it anyway – there are plenty of people that still believe Lance was clean, while many others refused to believe it until the Oprah interview, despite all the evidence staring them in the face.
So where’s the motivation to reveal that the big names in a sport are cheating? The answer is there isn’t any – it would be counter-productive.
This isn’t a massive conspiracy theory – it’s logical. A sport will protect its own interests and get away with what it can. Keep them sweet by chucking in a couple of obvious positives here and there, and people will believe it – it’s more believable if there are one or two big names found out every so often than if no one was testing positive. Sports cannot be trusted to root out the cheats.
Usain Bolt will probably never test positive. Or, at least if he does, it won’t be until towards the end of his career as with Gay and Powell – by whenever he has outlived his usefulness to the sport. Does this mean he is clean? No. I believe there is enough evidence to suggest that you cannot trust the doping authorities and the sports authorities any more, so I feel entitled to be able to speculate. Sprinting, and by extension athletics as a whole, has to re-earn my trust again.
To me, it seems unlikely that anyone who has run below 9.80 seconds in the 100m is clean. It took an enormous doping effort to get from 9.79 to 9.78, let alone 9.58. Bolt is now essentially now 0.25 faster than the nearest athlete that might be clean. That’s a massive red flag in my eyes. He was a breath of fresh air when he burst onto the scene and we all fell in love with him, but the guy’s suspicious now.
Similarly, in cycling, I have suspicions about Team Sky. They may be open and relatively mild-mannered, but there are questions. Chris Froome has come from nowhere over the last two years to become superficially one of the best riders ever. His time climbing Mont Ventoux a few days ago nearly matched Armstrong’s, and his recoveries between stages are extraordinary. That’s not normal. That’s superhuman. And once you start using that word, alarm bells should be ringing.
If Team Sky are doping, that raises questions about the British Olympic cycling team, for which Brailsford is also responsible. If there are questions about the cycling team, by extension you have to look at other British athletes. The old “the British don’t dope, we’re too fair” trope is nonsense. Doping is not just for Eastern European women with hairy armpits – we passed that 30 years ago, and they were a convenient target even then. Nor can we just blame the Spaniards because of Operacion Puerto. A competitive sportsman or sportswoman who wants to win at all costs is without nationality.
Mo Farah. I ran home from the pub to watch him win his first gold last year. A few weeks later, I stumbled upon an athletics forum and many of those discussing there were convinced he was doping. I looked into it. His coach, Alberto Salazar, claims to be clean, but also likes to say he pushes the boundaries. Oh really? Couple that with Farah’s meteoric rise over the last couple of years, something that should always raise questions, and I’m now suspicious. And what about other British athletes? These are legitimate questions now, questions which need to be asked instead of being swept under the carpet with the implication that anyone who asks them is a tin-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist.
In the aftermath of Gay and Powell’s positive tests, 100m star Yohan Blake, 800m world record holder David Rudisha and 1500m Olympic champion Taoufik Makhloufi all withdrew from this summer’s World Championships in Moscow with “injury” or “illness”. Uh, hello? You don’t think that’s awfully convenient? Blake already has a positive test on his record. Is this thing on?
Barcelona’s astonishing football has raised questions, but not loudly enough to get above the sycophancy of the mainstream football media. Their endurance and recovery is exceptional – how they can play such an intensive style of football without getting tired seems superhuman. Then they were beaten to the La Liga title by Real Madrid, who were managed by a manager who at a previous club talked of “Dr Needles” and hinted at giving players “supplements” – look, I like Mourinho, but you can’t say his practices aren’t suspicious. And then Barca were beaten by Bayern Munich in the Champions League this year, whose club doctor has controversial methods and has worked with Tyson Gay and Usain Bolt…
But you won’t see this in the papers. Talk of doping in sport is left for the message boards and the occasional blogger. Bill Simmons’ exceptional article for Grantland earlier this year is one of the few to attack this from a different angle, instead of sticking to the safe, unquestioning “well none of them have tested positive so they must be clean, anyway let’s talk about something else” line.
Sport hides this. It bottles it up. But it’s only serving to make us look stupid years on down the line, when someone will inevitably break the secret and everyone says “oh how could we have been fooled? It should have been obvious.” The sports authorities will walk away with no damage – the burden of guilt and embarrassment is left not with those involved, but the innocent party, the viewers. We shouldn’t accept that. Nor should we accept counter-arguments like “everyone else was doping too” and “what’s so bad about performance-enhancing drugs anyway?” We are being lied to by everyone within that sport who knows what is going on.
Ask questions. Be suspicious. Don’t be afraid to speculate. Don’t be afraid to accuse. Don’t allow yourself to be bullied by those that say there is no evidence. After Armstrong, Gay and Powell, professional sport can no longer expect us to trust it.
Images used in the spirit of fair use. Because it’s important to be fair, isn’t it?