Why taking the moral high ground can be the cowardly thing to do. Outtakes from an interview with Matt Rendell.

Matt Rendel (image from itv.com)

Back in June, I posted the transcript of a great conversation I had with Matt Rendell in three parts. Matt is a journalist, an author and commentator who has devoted much his career to writing about Colombian cycling. Due to the length of the interview, I simply had to omit some parts to make it fit within three posts. As I looked over the unedited transcript, I realized that the outtakes of the interview were very interesting, and certainly worth sharing. What follows are those outtakes.

On the topic of Matt's interest in Colombian cycling, and how it came through him wanting to know about Colombia's climate, and the fact that it's regulated by altitude. Something that Chepe Gonzalez spoke about at the Tour de France in an interview:

It's very interesting to me that your enthusiasm was partially borne out of encountering one of the very first aspects about Colombia that I have to explain to people I meet. It's one that usually turns people off, and leaves them wanting to know less, not more about the country. The idea that temperature, climate, and thus plant life and everything else around the Equator is regulated by altitude [thus creating these zones that Chepe referred to]. In a sense, you became more interested at the very moment that most tune out.

I did, and I eventually went to Colombia. When I got there, Chepe quickly became one of my best friends in the world. I would later realize that this is how things can happen in Colombia. It was like….well, I studied Italian, and lived in Italy. Italians are xenophiles. They love a foreigner. So everything I loved about Italy, I found in Colombia. People dress very well, and elegantly. They eat very well, and love their food, they drink and love coffee. They talk about these things, because they love them. Colombians treasure the present moment, and beauty. Being British…well…we tore down all the beautiful art and decoration from our churches 500 years ago. We don't value either the present moment, or elegant surfaces. So it was a wonderful relief to be in Colombia. And to tell the truth, I've made a small career out of being a foreigner, or a stranger in Colombia. But that's been easy, because Colombians are so welcoming. People in Colombia are so extremely appreciative of the mere fact that you are there, and have chosen to be there.

Chepe Gonzalez

Your wife is Colombian, how did you meet her?

I was leaving the Itagüi Hospital in Medellin, from having just interviewed Roberto Escobar [Pablo Escobar's brother]. I was heading into town, and I met Vivi on the Metro. I tell the story in the first chapter of my next book, because it was through her that I became interested in salsa and Latin dance. So we met in Colombia while I was writing Kings Of The Mountains.

On the subject of doping, and those who dope

Regarding Pantani, and the whole doping subject. Among fans and the media, tempers flare when certain doping cases and individuals are brought up. Which cyclists make fans angriest depends on the popularity of that rider at the moment. It's selective. Some seem to get a pass.

With that in mind—and I know it's probably unpopular to say this—but lost in the shuffle are often the people at the center of all this. As much as people focus their hatred on the doper as a sports figure, we also lose sight of the actual individual who doped. Not the athlete but the person. People like Pantani were truly troubled, and many mourn him now, but few cared when he was alive. Some even hated him. Similarly, when you have riders who have doped getting death threats, as Joe Papp has, we should really ask ourselves what on earth is going on. We shouldn't look to make excuses for anyone, or pitty people, but I think these matters should be contained within the scope of cycling.

We live in a society that has really lost its moral compass. Look, when Contador won the Tour in 2007, he walked into the press center on the Saturday night before the last stage into Paris. And I can tell you that I was the only person there who congratulated him in any way. There was an unbelievable sense of cold moral indignation. I’ve become a conscientious objector to all that, because I’m afraid that taking the moral high ground can be a very cowardly thing to do when everyone is doing it.

More about those who have doped:

And merely mentioning that anyone in their position is a human being can actually be very unpopular. Not because of the sentiment alone, but because it humanizes them. You sound tougher behind a great deal of bravado and posturing. This is not about exculpating, or pity. But in some cases, there may be larger issues at work too...both personal, and at an endemic level within the sport, and people aren't interested in discussing those at all. As it was with Pantani.

Sure, and I’ll say this: I love Joe. Print that: I think Joe Papp is a great guy, and I love the guy. Look, Joe needs all the friends he can get right now.

I intended to mention, but forgot to, that Riccardo Riccò is a good example of what I'm talking about. That the guy should not be racing for the sake of the sport is obvious. That he should not be racing for his own well being is something few say, or care about. Though I'm certainly not privy to any specifics, it clearly seems that the guy has issues to sort out. Plenty of them. I think that perhaps teams are complicit in this problem, by trying to get disturbed individuals back on the bike as soon as possible for the sake of getting press, sponsorship dollars, or higher level licenses. Individuals doping are a more obvious and visible issue, so it's easy to be angry about. But the issues that can lurk behind are more complicated and less entertaining for people to discuss on the internet. So this is not to say everyone involved should be pitied because "surely there was a reason why they doped". No. But I'm trying to say that there's often a larger discussion to be had, one that covers other issues as well.

In closing (and as I've said before) I largely try to avoid the topic of doping on the blog, mostly because I don't feel that I have any new or relevant information on the matter...and thus can add little to the discussion. I'd hate to be just another uninformed individual pounding his chest with malformed opinions. Furthermore, other aspects of the sport interest me much more. Having said that, I thought Matt's answers were worth sharing even if they are now slightly out of context.

Lastly, anyone interested in Colombian cycling and its history should check out Matt's great book Kings of the Mountains: How Colombia's Cycling Heroes Changed Their Nation's History.

PS: Not bad for his first time racing in the United States.