It seems I must not go spinning in the evening. The previous time I did so, I was wrecked for a week. This time round, I couldn’t sleep until two in the morning. I tried getting up, sitting down, thinking calming thoughts, listening to the world’s most boring podcasts, but it wasn’t until I ate some chocolate at two a.m. that I finally went to sleep, to wake five hours later, feeling dreadful.
I felt more dreadful a week ago, because that was when I finished Nicole Cooke’s autobiography, The Breakaway. But that was more from feelings of rage, shame and despair than insomnia.
Nicole Cooke featured in an article in one of the Sunday papers, back around the turn of the century. It hyped her as a strong new talent in women’s cycling from Wales … and then she fell off the edge of the world for a while. The next time i read about her, it was with reference to her not winning the World Championship, with the implication being that she didn’t have any friends in the peloton and that was why nobody was supporting her in the race. And then nothing, until she retired last year.
Well, I say nothing, apart from almost everyone else being implicated in doping, all the way up to the celestial Lance "It’s Not About The Bike (It’s The Drugs, Actually)" Armstrong. Oh, and British cycling suddenly succeeding at long last, with Team Sky and a Tour de France win at long, long last.
Except it wasn’t quite like that, because Nicole Cooke had been there, done that years before. Not because of help from British Cycling or the Olympic committees or anyone else, but because she’d trained her guts out, and then been punished by old fogeys who didn’t like the idea of their fiefdoms being assailed by somebody they couldn’t control.
The whole history of Britain’s mad pursuit of Olympic medals is brought into a different light. Apparently we were so embarrassed as a nation by winning one gold at Atlanta in 1996 that we had to plough vast amounts of money into sport, and the sole yardstick for success was how many Olympic golds we could win in a sport. Because if you want an example of an ethical, egalitarian organisation with humanity’s best interests at heart, look no further than … oh dear.
So while Nicole Cooke tore things up on the road racing circuit in Europe, a bunch of incompetent coaches, managers and general hangers-on failed to properly train other women cyclists in Britain, and did their level best to sabotage Nicole Cooke, lying, setting the rest of the British team to stop her from winning anything (a great bit of dog-in-the-manger behaviour) and acting like the terrible people they were.
Truly, it made me feel ashamed to be British and to be male to read the idiocies that were perpetrated. Quite how Nicole Cooke survived these trials without being reduced to an embittered shell of a person is a wonder to see. Instead, she catalogues what they did in a quite matter-of-fact manner, repeatedly pointing out to the high-ups in British Cycling and the World Class Performance Plan what they were doing wrong, and what they needed to do to remedy it.
And instead, we fete people who have been taking performance enhancing drugs, and reward them with jobs and tell-all books and let them keep the medals they cheated their way to.
(Which in turn, makes the herculean efforts to ban Vanessa-Mae, the British violinist, from ever taking part in the Winter Olympics again seem part of a larger continuum of bullies, acting in bizarre, pointless ways, just because they can.)
So all in all, a disquieting book, one to make you reconsider sport in general, and (once you read the idiocies perpetrated against women’s soccer in the 1920s, sadly a case of history repeating itself). I wish I’d known more, I wish if I had known, there would have been something I could have done, but it’s done now, and you wonder who could make these things right.