Column: London 2012 learns (again) how to lose

Rule Britannia? Try cruel Britannia.

An unrepentant ex-doper from Kazakhstan kissing his gold medal

on the queen’s front drive was hardly how Brits had imagined Day 1

of their Olympics. Instead of a British champion in cyclist Mark

Cavendish, they got Borat without the fun and a lesson in how to

lose.

As if they needed one.

The omens for Britain had been so good. Everyone figured

Cavendish – a.k.a ”the Manx Missile,” on account of his ungodly

speed in the finishing straight – as a sure thing. Prince Charles

and his wife, Camilla, came to give Cavendish a royal send-off. The

world champion also had Bradley Wiggins in his corner, ready to

repay one good turn with another after Cavendish helped the rider

now universally known across these isles as ”Wiggo” (soon to be

Sir Wiggo?) become the first Briton to win the Tour de France.

”Cav,” the thinking went, would get Britain’s first gold of

2012 – hopefully, the first of many.

Only hours earlier, director Danny Boyle had made maximum use of

his license to thrill and ensured everyone had a gas, gas, gas at

the opening ceremony. If Cavendish could then follow James Bond and

the rock of the Rolling Stones by kick-starting Britain’s medal

count, then London 2012 would be off to the best possible

beginning. IOC President Jacques Rogge himself had said beforehand

how important an early British medal would be to the mood and

atmosphere of the London games.

But what’s that phrase about best laid plans going awry?

Alexander Vinokourov had it memorized. Wiggo huffed, puffed and

gave his all, as did Cav’s three other teammates in their Team GB

jerseys, as they guided and pulled him across the English

countryside. They’d hoped to maneuver their human rocket into a

sprint finish on The Mall, the road that leads to Queen Elizabeth

II’s rather large pad. But Vinokourov shot off too far ahead to be

caught.

Britain agonized long and hard before these games about whether

its own ex-doper cyclist, David Millar, deserved a spot on Team GB.

After strong-arming from the World Anti-Doping Agency and sport’s

highest court, which ruled that Millar and other Britons who served

doping bans can’t be barred from the games for life, British

Olympic officials held their nose and let him in.

Kazakhstan, as far as we know, had no qualms fielding

Vinokourov. Unlike Millar, now an ardent and eloquent campaigner

against doping, he’s never been keen to come clean about his past,

the blood doping at the 2007 Tour de France and his subsequent

two-year ban. Nor was he about to start now, not after the Grand

Duke of Luxembourg hung the gold medal around his neck on the top

step of the podium set against the backdrop of Buckingham

Palace.

”I’ve turned the page on 2007. I’ve shown and proved to

everyone that Vino is still here,” he said. ”Today is not the day

to talk of that.”

Just because Vino says so doesn’t actually make it so. Still,

American rider Chris Horner said Vinokourov has served his time,

”done the same drug tests all of us have done” and should be cut

some slack.

”I haven’t seen anything out of him that tells me that he’s

still doing anything sketchy,” Horner said. ”Those are the rules

and that’s the way it is. It’s crazy to think that those are the

rules and you come back and then all of a sudden everybody still

wants to hang you.”

Well, not exactly. But a ”sorry” from Vinokourov would have

been good. Millar’s readiness to address his doping, why and how he

started and his subsequent repentance, has made it easier to

forgive him.

But, hey, that’s sports. Win some, lose some, sometimes to

people who don’t feel quite right. As the British say, on T-shirts

and tea mugs, Keep Calm and Carry On. There will be medals aplenty

for Team GB in the two weeks ahead.

Plus, it wasn’t all negative. The monster crowds – pre-race

estimates of about 1 million looked on the mark – that lined the

250-kilometer route Saturday from the British capital through

rolling countryside and back again had a jamboree, at least until

Cavendish proved the streets of London aren’t paved with gold.

If their enthusiasm is a foretaste of things to come, Rogge has

nothing to worry about. The landmarks of London – the queen’s

palace, the royal guards in the bearskin hats whose band regaled

the crowds with the James Bond theme and music from ”Chariots of

Fire,” the lush parks – provide pathos and stunning images. Even

without gold from Cav, one felt London 2012 will still be quite a

party.

”Exceptional. Even at the Tour de France, I’ve rarely seen so

many people,” French rider Sylvain Chavanel said.

”Insane,” Horner said, ”but to a degree that it was just

absolutely, probably, the most dangerous and crazy race I’ve done,

for sure.”

And besides, it’s not as if Brits don’t know how to lose.

Learning how to laugh off defeat is practically the only way to

stay sane for a country that invented modern football but hasn’t

won the World Cup since 1966, and hasn’t seen a British man win

Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936.

Richard Jones, a Londoner who hustled over to Buckingham Palace,

got the tone just right when Cav didn’t deliver.

”I was there when he didn’t win it!” he yelled.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The

Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow

him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester