Two comeback stories played out in the world of sports earlier this month, not on the racing track or the football pitch, but in a hotel room in Austin, Texas, US and inside a government building in New Delhi.
It would be naive to think that cyclist Lance Arsmtrong confessed to Oprah Winfrey in a television interview because he could no longer cope with the “big lie” his life had turned into. He had coped well enough for more than a decade, doping his way to seven straight Tour de France titles between 1999 and 2005, all the while silencing anyone who dared accuse him of wrongdoings with threats and vehement denials. Armstrong remained defiant even after the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) piled on the evidence against him last year. He also rejected an offer to cooperate with the investigation.
More likely that the interview conducted in Austin last week and aired in two parts on 17 and 18 January actually had a lot to do with the 41-year-old trying to find a way back into competitive sports, maybe not cycling but something else, such as triathlon. To do that Armstrong must convince the authorities to revoke his life ban—what he calls the “death penalty”.
So Armstrong began with a partial confession, where he admitted to some of the charges against him but refused to name anyone else involved in what the USADA described, with a touch of melodrama, as “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen”.
“Hell yes,” said Armstrong when asked if he wants to compete again. But he admitted that “I don’t expect it to happen”, while adding that he probably deserved another chance.
Armstrong has already been stripped of all his Tour de France titles and the Olympic bronze won in road-time trial in Sydney in 2000. The battle against testicular cancer when he was in his 20s appears to be the only one he won fair and square. Now his best bet is to testify under oath and disclose more about the people and processes involved in the doping and deceit on which his success was built; and hope for some sort of amnesty at some point.
What professional athletes think of Armstrong ever coming back to sports can be gauged from some of their reactions. “All these ‘born again’ champions of a clean sport. They could be more accurately described as criminals who stole others’ livelihoods who are only ever genuinely sorry about one thing—they are sorry they were caught,” former world and Olympic cycling champion Nicole Cooke said in a scathing retirement speech on 14 January, the day Armstrong was interviewed by Winfrey.
Easy way back
Armstrong must now ponder over who and what to sacrifice in his bid to achieve redemption and it may still elude him. Closer home, Mohun Bagan had it easy, albeit having committed a far lesser crime. Just over two weeks after being slapped with a two-season ban from the I-League, all that Mohun Bagan needed to get back to top-flight football was Rs.2 crore. Of course, the club’s 124-year history and huge fan base helped.
The I-League core committee had imposed the initial ban on Mohun Bagan on 29 December for the club’s refusal to play the second half of the Kolkata derby against East Bengal citing security concerns in the Salt Lake stadium on 9 December. The ban was backed by a report submitted by the All India Football Federation (Aiff)-appointed one-man commission of retired Supreme Court justice A. K. Ganguly. The penalty left Bagan without a chance to play in the country’s top league till 2015.
But in a turnaround, described by former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia as “beyond reason”, the Aiff executive committee met on 15 January to discuss Bagan’s appeal against the ban and reduced it to a fine of Rs.2 crore. Aiff president and Union heavy industries minister Praful Patel, who chaired the meeting, said: “While we agree with Justice Ganguly’s report, we’ve taken a slightly more lenient view, keeping in mind the long tradition of the club, its lakhs of followers and the larger interest of the game, the players at the club and the spectators.”
Bhutia was among those who thought the two-season ban was too harsh. His club, United Sikkim FC, was one of 11 I-League clubs that had submitted an appeal to Aiff before the 15 January meeting asking it to reduce Mohun Bagan’s punishment. But the final decision surprised him. “This seemed like a criminal escaped punishment only by paying a penalty!” Bhutia told a newspaper.
Goan club Churchill Brothers went a step ahead and sent Aiff a letter protesting the new decision. “It can set a dangerous precedent, even though the president said this will be the first and only decision of its kind,” said an official of an I-League second division club who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Going scot free
The ones who went scot free are the fans who interrupted the match by throwing stones on the ground after Odafa Okolie’s expulsion just before half-time, with East Bengal leading 1-0. One of the stones hit Mohun Bagan’s Rahim Nabi, resulting in two fractures in his cheekbone that needed surgery.
“The target clearly was the referee, not Nabi. Why would Mohun Bagan fans target Nabi?” asked Milan Datta, a former Fifa referee who has also chaired the AIFF referees committee.
Indian football is crying out for fans. Historically Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are blessed with huge followings. However, with that comes great responsibility too, for clubs have to be held responsible for the behaviour of their fans.
“No honest attempt has really been made by anyone to tackle the problem,” says Datta. Spectators are not even allowed to take water bottles at cricket stadiums, checking at football stadiums remain almost non-existent. “This is a good opportunity to revisit the issue and think of putting in place systems to curb crowd trouble,” says Shaji Prabhakaran, a Fifa regional development officer. “There has to be greater coordination among the different agencies, including the police, who are involved in organizing matches.”
Till that happens, violence in football stadiums will be just a harsh red card or controversial goal away.