Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Kjærgaard speaks out - sort of

Just as I started to feel Armstrong fatigue after following the recent developments, as probably you all did, the snowball from the Armstrong/USPS-affair came to Norway.

Norway hasn't had that many doping cases, a couple of weightlifters for steroids, a race walker was busted for EPO last year, and a couple of the odd "it was in my supplements"-excuses are pretty much it. Even a horse is listed as one of Norway's doping scandals. Says perhaps much about Norwegians too, what do I know. 

Kjærgaard during today's press conference

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It isn't that Kjærgaard doped that surprises me, followers on twitter would know my position, although I put my pride in not openly judge riders without proof. It's not a fair fight. I remember when I started following pro cycling seriously, I almost laughed at the idea of an omertà in cycling, that it was something the conspiracy thinkers out there had cooked together. However, it didn't take long to get an understanding that something was lurking in the dark. Today, as Kjærgaard admitted doping, his fear of the omertà was obvious.

Two stories
Among the journos at the press conference today sat Mads Kaggestad, former Credit Agricole now cycling commentator on Norwegian TV2. He rode at the same time as Kjærgaard (2003), on different teams obviously. Today he confronted Kjærgaard harshly, on several subjects such as who was involved behind the scenes, Johan Bruyneels touch in the matters at USPS, how he refused to believe that Kjærgaard and the other riders at Chicken and USPS didn't talk about doping "at all", as Kjærgaard said. 
On one hand you have Kjærgaard, a talented rider, one of the few Norwegians who went pro, did scoop up a couple of good palmares on his way, arguably being one of Norway's top three cyclists. He rode together with Lance Armstrong on his team, one of, if not the greatest rider on the planet. On the other hand you have Kaggestad, a very talented rider who also turned pro, but instead of going to a dodgy team he went to Credit Agricole under the watchful eye of Roger Legeay. He never got the same palmares as Kjærgaard, struggled in the increasingly faster peloton in the beginning of the millennium. But he never gave in
Today I saw an angry Kaggestad confronting Kjærgaard and the two careers puzzled me. To see and feel the emotions Kaggestad had, not only because he "knew" something wasn't right back then, but also due the fact that Kjærgaard has lied to Kaggestad's and everyone's face the last 10-15 years. As who has my respect today, it's quite clear. I had much respect for Mads Kaggestad before, both because of what he accomplished as a rider and because of his commentator skills, but today he earned even more. To compete in a peloton that goes faster every week, year after year, and still maintaining his stance is remarkable. He almost ran his body in the ditch as the dopers increased the tempo. Kaggestad says to Procycling.no that he feels doping to a certain degree ruined his career. 

Kjærgaard on Chicky

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Kaggestad questioning Kjærgaard

Photo credit Erlend Aas, Scanpix

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Many, many riders didn't dope, I hear you say. True, then they all deserve an extra clap on the shoulders. It is difficult when dreams meet reality. When real life obligations meet demands. I think I have my priorities clear and my suitcase of courage, but that's me. Kaggestad can face others with pride, while the one who doped quietly wiped tears today in a press conference. In the end, Kaggestad won.

The basics
To me this is about the fundamental element of sports; a level playing field. The payment of hard work, dedication, brilliant tactics and teamwork is the key reason I follow sports. Maybe over the edge romantic, but that's how it is. The idea of someone playing by a different set of rules makes sport pointless, meaningless.

Reading Tyler Hamilton's book "The Secret Race" was interesting, not so much because of the doping itself, mostly old news except the scale of it, but more due to the insight on Hamilton's personal level. What is it like to live a lie for so many years? Earning your job, perhaps some of your friends, your network, your house and car on something fake? Like it or not, it does something to you. Read the book, Kjærgaard did and said on the press conference that he was hoping to learn and feel what Hamilton did as he came forward with the news. 
Doping isn't (just) cheating, cheating is what you can do in card games. No, doping is fraud. You earn money, that means someone else loses. You win and get famous, that means someone else will not get the sponsors you do. There are many more than just the riders involved too, take a look at Rabo, that's some 80-100 people who have secured income just one more year. They have families etc etc, you follow my lead here, no doubt about that.

Omerta is still here
During the press conference I was waiting to see Kjærgaard namedrop some of the people behind the organized doping. Actually, it was Kaggestad who first asked about the people standing in the shadows. Suddenly Kjærgaard's body-language froze (even more). In the beginning he couldn't recall one person in any teams he had doped in.  As he received heat he mentioned Del Moral's name once, but the words "closed communication between me and the doctors", "closed network", He even said that he didn't know if Kim Andersen knew he (Kjærgaard) doped when he was on Andersen's team, even though the team doctor did the injections. To me this was a great disappointment, I had hoped he would provide info on the main characters in the shadows. Perhaps it wasn't the time nor place to call out everyone who was involved. Kjærgaard rather pathetic said he "didn't recall anyone directly involved in doping on any of the teams he rode for." He came clear on his own, but it became clear to me that the omertà still is alive and kicking.

Kjærgaards predecessor as national sports director, Svein Gaute Hølestøl, knew Kjærgaard doped back in 1999. He was a fellow Norwegian pro cyclist in Belgium at the same time as Kjærgaard. Hølestøl was sports director for Kjærgaard on the national team later, knowing Kjærgaard had doped. 

Kjærgaard will be interviewed by Antidoping Norway on his experiences, and that might clear some matters up, at least I hope he take advantage of that possibility. 

Today Steffen Kjærgaard, former USPS and former national sports director Norwegian Cycling, admitted doping in his career. He sat there crying, admitting that he had planned to take this secret with him right until the end. He was pushed to confess, by the recent events in cycling. His honor is gone, as he has kept a lie for 15 years. One of the things annoying me the most is him being a leader. Having responsibility for the development of others is disturbing. 

Today I also saw the omertà alive and kicking, and what it does to people. It need to stop.

I sincerly hope Kjærgaard finds some inner peace in coming forward, but I see that is a small comfort to all the people he robbed and deceived. Living a lie is never easy.

More on the case: