Monthly Archives: October 2012

Armstrong: hindsight vs foresight

How many times have we heard it said?

“Hindsight is a wonderful thing.”

In the case of Lance Armstrong’s doping misdeeds, we can probably say – with the benefit of hindsight – that, even from his earliest days as a competitive athlete, the Texan was so determined to win that he would do anything to come first.

We don’t know for sure, but hindsight suggests that, as a hard-riding, hard-running, swift-swimming triathlete whose thirst for victory seemingly knew no bounds, he might well have been using performance enhancing drugs for years before he became a professional cyclist.

So now, with hindsight, we can say we saw his downfall coming.

But can we, and did we?

And – if we did – would foresight have set off alarm bells so loud that even Armstrong would’ve heard them above the clamour of his adoring fans and the sound of cash registers ringing all over the world? And would he have changed his methods?

I doubt it.

For as much as Armstrong was – as others have said – a serial cheat, he was also a serial winner; a man so driven that such foresight as he might’ve had would have been scattered to the outer fringes of his peripheral vision as he focused intently on his plans for winning.

For him, the prize was everything. Nothing else was ever in sight. Over and over and over again.

Now, of course, hindsight tells us that – with foresight – he should have seen the eventual outcome long before it arrived.

But in Armstrong’s head-down, pedal-for-all-you’re-worth, win-at-any-price, the-prize-is-worth-the-pain world there was never any room for foresight.

It’s as if it was only for losers; people who, by thinking ahead, try to anticipate what might be round the next corner and take appropriate action. And then don’t win.

And that’s a shame because – with foresight – even Armstrong could’ve guessed that the discovery of his serial cheating would destroy his reputation and the exalted place he’s occupied in the only world he’s known for the last twenty years.

And, with foresight on his side, we might – even with hindsight – still be blind to his misdemeanours and see him for what he is: a very determined man.

Ultimately, neither hindsight nor foresight will come out as winners.

For hindsight has taught us nothing and we’ll learn nothing from foresight.

Perhaps Armstrong is the real winner.

After all, he was first in his time and seen to be first.

It’s only the wisdom of hindsight that’s condemned him for his lack of foresight.

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From Sainsbury’s, by mistake

These days, branding seems to have become one of the black arts.

A century or so ago it was – and still is in some parts – the cowboy’s art. Get John Wayne to sear a steer with the Double B and you knew where it came from, and who owned it.

Nowadays, things are a little different. All manner of products are branded with company names. But – as we all know – that doesn’t mean the companies who mark them actually make them.

Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the practice of branding goods produced by others. Indeed, without it – and if they didn’t allow them to be labelled by major stores and supermarkets – many food producers would find it hard to sell their products in profitable volumes.

What’s at issue – for me, at least – is the tricky business of how the branding is presented.

Many companies make no particular claims for a food product and simply brand it with their name: Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Marks & Spencer, Selfridges and so on. And that’s fine.

Sainsbury’s, on the other hand, have tried to take the idea one step further. For some time now they’ve been describing their own-label products as “by Sainsbury’s”.

How can this be?

Everyone who shops at Sainsbury’s must know the company simply cannot be the ‘author’ of every product that bears its name. So how can all these products be said to be “by Sainsbury’s”?

A sauce might be “by Sainsbury’s”, if Sainsbury’s developed its recipe. A range of biscuits might also qualify.

Surely …. from the vine?

But a bag of potatoes? A head of broccoli? Vine grown tomatoes?

Surely it would be more appropriate for the supermarket chain to describe their own-label products as “from Sainsbury’s”.

Not only would this be true – the product was bought in a Sainsbury’s store and so it came from Sainsbury’s – it would also suggest a degree of corporate responsibility, even generosity. “At Sainsbury’s, we think this product is so good we’d like you to have it. It’s not really a gift, but it comes from us to you. So, enjoy!”

As it is, “by Sainsbury’s” simply provokes mild incredulity tinged with low level cynicism. “Nah … they didn’t make it. They couldn’t. They just stuck their name on it.”

Call me a pedant – and many have and will – but I think the difference between the use of “by” and “from” matters.

An orange from Sainsbury’s may well be superior to one from a corner shop that cannot afford to buy and sell totally fresh, top-quality fruit.

But an orange by Sainsbury’s is faintly ludicrous.

Last year the supermarket dropped its strapline urging customers to “Try something new today”.

This year, I suggest, it should try something new itself: try “from” not “by”. That way they might convert the cynics and win a few more friends – to say nothing of some extra customers.

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In praise of Tommy V

In all the fuss surrounding Lance Armstrong’s use of illegal performance-enhancing substances and techniques, one man’s contribution to the fascinating sport of cycling stands in danger of being overlooked.

In 2004, a young French rider – Thomas Voeckler –  brought an unexpected level of excitement to the Tour de France when, at the finish of Stage 4, he took the leader’s yellow jersey and held it until the end of Stage 14. It was an exceptional, enthralling effort, with Voeckler yielding only at his last gasp in the French Alps and having to pass the jersey to Lance Armstrong as the new race leader.

To most of us who follow the sport, Thomas was then still a comparatively unknown quantity.

Armstrong was Le Patron. He’d won the race five times and – despite Voeckler’s audacious stint in yellow – was on course for his fifth victory.

I was in France for that 2004 Tour, to watch the individual time trial up and round the 21 hairpins of the legendary L’Alpe d’Huez, and saw the excitement for myself.

I had gone to bear witness to Armstrong, but straightaway saw that Voeckler might well eclipse him.

To begin with, Thomas was young, he was French and, at a time when doping was less of an issue, he was presumed ‘clean’. Desperate for a home-grown hero to match the by-then-discredited Richard Virenque, the people of France had taken little Tommy V to their hearts and have adored him ever since.

I, too, was enchanted.

Standing at a hairpin bend on the lower slopes of L’Alpe, photographing some of the athletes as they rode by one-by-one, I waited until he came in sight and got off just one frame. He was in the coveted white jersey awarded to the youngest, highest-placed rider in the peloton. And he looked like what he was: a courageous boy in a man’s race.

The boy on the Alpe

Minutes later, Armstrong hove into view. Not wanting to miss a moment of the experience of being in what had become his commanding aura, I stood transfixed as he rode powerfully towards the hairpin, his face a mask of concentration. As he raced towards it’s apex, I darted across the bend to see him power out of the turn and up the next part of the climb.

I didn’t take his photograph, but the memory is etched on my mind.

Last year, little Tommy V captured our hearts all over again.

Seven years older, and against all the odds, he once more animated the Tour de France with his plucky riding and his never-say-die attitude.

Taking the yellow jersey at the completion of Stage 9, he held it all the way to the end of Stage 19, which – in an intriguing twist of fate – finished at the summit of L’Alpe d’Huez.

Once again he had animated the race. And yet again he had done it without a hint of doping or cheating of any other kind.

He simply rode his heart out to finish fourth when the Tour finally ended in Paris.

This year, after thrilling contests in the Pyrenees, he won the King of the Mountains competition, having won two Stages along the way.

Today, while Tommy V remains a hero at least to the French if not the rest of the world, Lance Armstrong – once acknowledged as an exceptional athlete – now looks like an exceptional cheat; the leading man at the heart of a drama described by the US Anti-Doping Agency as “the deepest, most sophisticated and successful doping programme [cycling] has ever seen”.

Voeckler may – for some – have an unpronounceable name, but Armstrong’s duplicitous behaviour begs the question: shall we ever understand the true meaning of ‘clean’?

It is, after all, an anagram of Lance.

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Hello and welcome!

This is my very first post on this blog, which is pretty exciting for me, if not for you.

It’s headed ‘Greetings!’, but I wonder if it should really say ‘Salutations!’, because that’s what’s on my mind.

A few weeks ago, I got into a discussion with my business partners about how we should address a bundle of letters – most of which were going to be sent to men.

I wanted to use the suffix ‘Esq’. Someone else wanted to use ‘Mr’ and the other person didn’t seem to mind.

All she could tell us was that the last time she saw ‘Esquire’ in common use was in the 1990s, when her father – who held a number of posts in the local community – used to receive business letters with the suffix ‘Esq’ in the address.

Apparently, this was a source of pride to his daughter, who used to boast about his status to her school friends. “My father’s an esquire. What’s yours?”. As you may guess, this made her feel special when he wasn’t bested.

Me, I have no history with ‘Esq’. I just like it.

I know it’s old-fashioned and, perhaps, a bit stuffy.

But, as you can tell from my partner’s story, it does have a bit of style about it. And it can give a man status.

Perhaps that’s not so surprising, when you learn that the term has its origins in the middle ages, when knights were addressed as ‘squire’ and ‘maidens’ swooned at the very sight of a lance.

And there was a time when people who owned property were accorded the title ‘Esquire’.

All in all, a title to be envied.

Nowadays, I gather, the style is either to dismiss suffixes altogether or address men as plain ‘Mr’, which seems unlikely to have quite the same Camelotian effect on today’s modern ‘Ms’, who sees herself as equal to any man in the joust of daily life.

As I say, I like ‘Esq’.

I will probably go on using it in much the same way as I would a silk top hat, which – assuming I were wearing one at the time – I would doff whenever I met a fellow gentleman in the street, whether he be a knight or a property owner.

To me, it’s all a matter of respect.

And I respectfully crave your indulgence – sir, squire, madam or ms – for this blog post; the first of what I hope will be many.

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