Pen Ultimate / Flying High

On the spectacle of men in tights on bikes and the scandals that surround them.

Last Sunday I was glued to the TV set, watching the last leg of the Tour de France, along the Champs Elysees in Paris, to see if Alberto Contador, the young Spanish contender for the highest spot on the podium, would manage to get there first. Australian rider Cadel Evans was only 23 seconds behind him, and the American Levi Leipheimer was a mere 8 seconds behind Evans. I was relieved to discover that some measure of chivalry still existed, and Contador's yellow jersey remained on his back after the 20 stages, following more than 90 hours of grueling pedaling. This was a relief in a race where two leading cyclists who wore the yellow jerseys for a few days, the Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov and the Dane Michael Rasmussen, were disqualified on charges of doping.

I know that this subject may raise some eyebrows among readers who know me as a "culture vulture" (which is not necessarily a compliment), so I've tried to remember how I first became hooked on the spectacle of men in tights on bikes.

In 1992 I was summoned to the room of Hanoch Marmari, the editor of Haaretz at the time, and was informed that I had been selected for a journalistic mission abroad: I had to fly to Palermo, Sicily, to interview the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, prior to his first of many visits to Israel with the Mariinsky Theater and Opera House. I was to continue on to Milan, to interview maestro Riccardo Muti, the then newly appointed director of the La Scala opera house (from which post he recently resigned, resoundingly slamming the door on his way out) prior to his first performance in Israel, with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

I tried to wiggle my way out of the arduous task bestowed upon me (and if you believe that, I'll sell you the Brooklyn Bridge), but I finally graciously accepted it. On my way out of the room, Marmari asked me, almost in passing, if I'd be willing while in Italy to purchase a bicycle seat for him - a new "Flight" model, manufactured there by the Selle company. He provided the money for it, of course, and I accomplished that part of the mission. You can read about it in Marmari's book "Hanoch Marmari al ha'ofnayim" ("On the Bike"; my name is not mentioned), where he admits that every Yom Kippur he still asks forgiveness from a colleague whom he had sent on an errant errand, misusing his editorial authority and causing him a lot of trouble (relax, Hanoch, it wasn't too bad).

When I saw how his hands were shaking when he opened the box, I decided to try and understand his excitement, and started reading his dispatches from the Tour. I found there what I had already suspected before: Contrary to the doctrine of dispassionate, factual reporting, journalists are at their best when they are passionately involved in what they are writing about.

Then I started to watch the Tour on TV, on the Eurosport channel, where you don't see the faces of the knowledgeable and entertaining commentators, just breathtaking views of France and a mass of posteriors of sweating, pedaling men, with an occasional view of a rider's helmet. And I got hooked. Is there a bigger human story than Lance Armstrong's seven successive victories, especially after his bout with testicular cancer? Or the story of this year's winner Contador, whom, until the moment of this writing, has not been charged with using forbidden substances, and who suffered a stroke and had to undergo brain surgery three years ago?

That was one of Marmari's major influences on my life. The other one was that he entrusted me with the task of founding and editing the weekly literary supplement of Haaretz, which made both our lives somewhat more complicated, certainly when compared to following bicycling races. But that is another story.

Medal mettle

Truth be told, as I did not in my youth excel in any sports - something that, for some reason, gives you a ticket to the attentions of the fairer sex - I became a follower of sports stories in the press and on TV, and my memory registered everything. Just recently I amazed a swimmer-friend with remembering that free-styler Don Schollander was the first swimmer to "reap" four Olympic gold medals, in Tokyo, in 1964.

Of course, I know that not only athletic prowess and dedicated training make an outstanding athlete. There had been stories about steroid usage in the past, but they were somehow limited to people from totalitarian states: the Soviet Union, China, East Germany. It was a rude awakening to see Canadian Ben Johnson outrunning Carl Lewis in the 100-meter sprint in the Seoul Olympics in 1988, with an amazing 9.79-seconds result, only to be stripped of his medal and world record the next day when it emerged that he was using anabolic steroids.

Then the gates of faith in the "fairness in sports" were finally opened wide, and a flood of suspicion swept in: Despite the questions regarding her drug use, legendary sprinter Florence ("Flo-Jo") Griffith Joyner, who had the longest fingernails on the track, passed the ultimate test when no forbidden substances were found in her body in the autopsy following her sudden death in 1998. And there were allegations, never proved, about the part the human growth hormone played in the results achieved by the fabulous Dutch swimmer Inge de Bruijn, who still stars in my blue "wet" dream (blue being the color of the water in the swimming pool, of course; and it's wet - the water, not the dream). Last but not least was Floyd Landis, who finished first in last year's Tour de France, but still has not been awarded his prize, battling accusations of use of performance-enhancing drugs during the race.

As if all this is not enough, I recently read that some astronauts, those modern-day heroes who dare tread where no other men have ventured, have blasted into space "spaced out," or under the influence of alcohol. Don't drink while driving a space shuttle; you might hit a meteor and spill something.

Which leads me to a question: Is it possible that some (or all) of our esteemed leaders - some young and seemingly healthy, others neither young nor healthy - are at some (or all) times under the influence of some sort of uppers or downers, and that that is why they stick their hands into the public kitty, or - God forbid - other parts of their anatomy into persons in their workplace?

This column is being written under the influence of a high dose of an IV-induced steroid, a performance-enhancing drug. No, I'm not gearing up for the next Tour de France. This is strictly by doctor's orders. But it is a well-documented phenomenon that writers and performers are sometimes at their very best under the influence - or at least said influence helps them not make utter fools of themselves. Let's hope that this is the case with respect to this column.