When being tough on a mate matters

How hard should a journalist go when a friend is in trouble? As hard as possible, because you have to, says TIM GAVEL, who came face-to-face with a mate in real strife…

CYCLIST Stephen Hodge has been a friend for more than 20 years; he was the last person I would have suspected to be involved in doping. 

Stephen Hodge

When he was riding in the Tour de France for team ONCE, I would ring him every couple of stages to gauge how he was travelling.

Post his cycling career, he has been a tireless advocate for cycling facilities; a mentor for young cyclists; and a progressive voice for the rights of cyclists and their place on Canberra’s roads.

In the lead-up to his admission of drug use, I had been trying to contact him to get his take on the Lance Armstrong scandal and the impact it was having within the cycling community. He was unusually hard to get a hold of.

I started to think that something was up. Then, at about 11.15 a.m. on Friday, October 19, he called to say that Cycling Australia would be releasing a statement in half an hour and that I would be wanting to speak to him.

He said he would do just one electronic interview and it would be with me; he would also speak to two other print journalists that day but would be involved with no other media organisation.

As a journalist, how would I deal with it? How hard would I go, given he is a friend? If I didn’t go hard it wouldn’t do either of us any favours.

So when it came to the interview itself, conducted in a park down the road from his home, I felt I needed to ask every question possible without being aggressive; getting to the heart of the story with an even-handed approach, without going over the top and making provocative statements.

I’ve also always felt that it’s important to be ethical and let the facts speak for themselves.

So after a couple of minutes of small talk as the camera was set up, I started asking questions; why did he do it,  why hadn’t he revealed it before, was it hard living with this for so many years? Did he opt to come clean only when faced with the prospect of having to make a judgment on Matt White, another cyclist who admitted to using banned drugs a number of years ago while part of Armstrong’s team?

The only time I felt he faltered was when I questioned him about the impact on his family. He said his wife didn’t know that for six years, two decades ago, he used performance-enhancing drugs; it was the same with his children. He made it pretty clear that this was a no-go area.

I have received plenty of comments since: many thought I should have asked whether he believed he had been living a lie for the past two decades and others wondered about his opinion on Lance Armstrong. There were some who called to praise him for coming clean and for showing integrity; others felt as though he was being eulogised even though he used performance-enhancing drugs.

Others wanted to balance the whole cheating aspect by saying that it was a practice of most cyclists in that era, while there was another school of thought that his community work should be taken into account.

I think he deserves credit for the way he has handled himself. The decision to remove himself from the ACT Sport Hall of Fame is the right one given it was for recognition of his cycling performances.

But his work in the community shouldn’t be totally overshadowed by his admission. There have been plenty of people in the past who have transgressed in their youth only to make a contribution later in life.

I don’t believe in public executions and if ever somebody deserved a chance to continue playing a role in our community it is Stephen Hodge.

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