What is it about the sight of present or former sportsmen that makes grown men and women enter a state of excitement as pink and frothy and liable to induce loud gurgling noises as a strawberry milkshake?
The causes of the phenomenon are unknown. What I do know after fifteen minutes in the company of Mario Cipollini before Stage 3 of the Giro d’Italia in Grado is that you can forget about swine flu; the only pandemic sweeping Italy on Monday was the one that the Lion King was leaving in his wake as he strode imperiously towards the start village in the sun-soaked town of Grado on the Adriatic Coast.
Cipollini is here in his role as consultant cum brand ambassador cum babe magnet for the Tuscan-based, Ukranian-funded ISD team. For those 15 minutes he was also Elvis, the Pope and the Pied Piper rolled into six-foot three of bronze Adonis. That and the target of more autograph, photo and interview requests than most riders here in the Giro will receive all season.
“Mario, will you sign this?” Gurgle gurgle gurgle. “Mario, can you pose with my son?” Gurgle gurgle gurgle. “Mario, just a quick word?” Gurgle gurgle gurgle.
1984 olympic track cycling medalist nelson vails (r) gets cipo’s autograph before stage 3 of the 2008 tour of california.: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
There was a time when Cipollini would spend mornings at the Giro behind the blacked out windows of his team bus, roughing up journalists who’d had the temerity to criticize (well, it happened once, anyway – to Tuttosport doyen Beppe Conte in 2004). Monday, in the face of almost equal provocation, he couldn’t have been more polite. Only once did he betray any sign of irritation – and that was when some cretin with a “Universal Sports” logo on his polo shirt and a camera slung over his shoulder brazenly interrupted our interview and started yapping at Cipollini about ‘the time we met at the Tour of California’.
California governor arnold schwarzenegger welcomes mario cipollini of italy and riding for rock racing to the stage after he finished third in stage 2 of the amgen tour of california on february 19, 2008 from santa rosa to sacramento, california.: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
To the gentleman’s surprise, Cipo did not throw open his arms and rush towards the camera squealing “Oh my! Oh yes! So wonderful to see you…” Instead he glared for a second, then spoke in a measured but menacing tone: “Er, no, you can’t have 30 seconds of my time, because I’m already doing an interview and you have no manners…”
I only hope the oik in question understood Italian.
On a serious note, those 15 minutes gave me a bit of perspective on the way pro sportsmen deal with their popularity. For years now, French team managers in particular have been banging on about how riders should venture out of their team buses before stages, sign autographs and interact with the public – but don’t consider how noisy, demanding and occasionally rude that public might be.
Fellow italian danilo di luca (l) gets a handful of mario cipollini at the 2005 giro d’italia.: FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images
Yes, there’s that old argument that an autograph and a wink might change the life and career-path of an eight-year-old race-goer. Somehow, though, that has to be reconciled with not only the stress that running the spectator and media gauntlet might entail, but also the risk that one involuntary scowl or shake of the head will damage the rider’s reputation more than the other 100 waves or smiles or signatures could enhance it.
What I suppose I’m building towards, readers, is a defence of Lance Armstrong.
Once, at the Tour de France, Armstrong and his US Postal team were less accessible than Fort Knox – and that normal, impenetrable service has been resumed at the Giro. Former Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc says in an interview in this month’s Procycling that he wishes Big Tex had done a bit more meeting and greeting during his first reign at the Grande Boucle. At first, when I read Leblanc’s comments, I agreed. Now, after yesterday’s experience with Cipo I’m not so sure.
Lance armstrong signs autographs before stage 2 of the 2009 giro d’italia.: DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images
I suppose the solution is to be as gracious and impeccably mannered when approaching the stars as you’d want them to be with you. The riders then have no excuse; not only that, but, in their mind, the kind of adulation Mario Cipollini still commands might start to feel like a blessing rather than a burden.