Editorial: Cyclist who broke silence a true hero

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It took courage to expose the much-celebrated Armstrong's drug-taking when no one wanted to know he was a cheat.

Former New Zealand cyclist Stephen Swart. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Former New Zealand cyclist Stephen Swart. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Customarily, the Herald's New Zealander of the Year accolade recognises a particularly notable contribution to national life. This year, however, it goes to a person whose courage created shockwaves far beyond the confines of this small nation. Cycling, one of the world's premier sports, was rocked to the core by doping revelations by Stephen Swart, once a teammate of Lance Armstrong and now an Auckland builder.

This year, the process he started culminated in what had once seemed unthinkable as Armstrong's much-celebrated name was expunged from the record books.

Swart's particular bravery lay in being the first cyclist to break the code of silence that had enveloped the sport. He implicated Armstrong as long ago as 1997 when telling of his own experience of taking performance-enhancing drugs. The American was then starting out on his path to seven Tour de France titles.

The real impact came in 2004 when Swart spoke more specifically about doping in Armstrong's team and published a book, L.A.Confidentiel - Les secrets de Lance Armstrong, in France.

As is always the case when the dirty laundry of a sport is aired, there was a backlash. It was unprecedented in this instance because this was all about a man so acclaimed that he was instantly recognisable by his Christian name. Brutally aggressive denials from Armstrong's camp, including even some of his sponsors, were only part of the response. Swart was also the subject of cruel criticism from fans on message boards and sports talkback.

This prompted his wife, Jan, to ask whether continuing to tell the truth in public was worth the cost. Swart's response was: "As long as you believe in the stance you are taking and why you are taking it then you have to stay strong with it. My motivation was that the sport, when I left it [at the end of 1995], was in very bad state."

Eventually, Swart's courage paid off as other former Armstrong teammates came forward. The American, having been exposed as a cheat, a liar and a bully, opted not to fight charges levelled by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. The outcome is that professional cycling has, as was Swart's wish, the chance to adopt a moral standard that ensures winning and doping no longer go hand in hand.

Courage is not always about a willingness to suffer deeply personal exposure to lay bare an ugly practice. Sometimes it can be about a persistence in delivering a message that those in power do not want to hear. Such is the case with Retirement Commissioner Diana Crossan, one of the nine other finalists for the Herald accolade. For years, she has been warning of looming problems in superannuation affordability because the lifespan of an ageing population has been underestimated.

Her recommendation to raise the age of super entitlement has been given short shrift, especially by the Key Government. That, however, does not detract from its eminent good sense, and she can now point to a change of attitude in the Labour Party and a far greater public understanding of the issue.

Heightened awareness will also be the very least of the achievements of the Children's Commissioner, Russell Wills, who this month released a report on solutions to child poverty. He describes its recommendations, including low-interest loans for low-income families and warrants of fitness for rental houses, as being too powerful and well-researched to be ignored. Ms Crossan knows differently.

Jan Wright, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, also distinguished herself by expressing views that the Government did not wish to hear. The retreat on climate change legislation was a farce, she said. But her determination to operate without fear or favour also led to conclusions in a report on fracking that were not what the Greens wanted to hear.

Dr Wright's courage in relying on scientific evidence, rather than any prevailing whim, has won her much admiration.

Lance Armstrong was not the only international sporting identity to fall foul of a New Zealander. Boxer and convicted rapist Mike Tyson's planned visit to this country was undone by 62-year-old Juliana Venning. She said youngsters would get the wrong message if he was allowed to speak here and was the subject of adulation.

Public putdowns and the odd threat were her reward. There was, however, only applause for weightlifter Tevita Ngalu, whose lift while suffering excruciating pain in an injured leg gave the New Zealand team enough points to send its top-ranked lifter to the London Olympics.

The ranks of the finalists also included people who have demonstrated leadership and worked consistently to improve the lives of others.

One was Papatoetoe High School's Peter Stewart, whose inspirational teaching of chemistry was recognised by the Prime Minister's Science Teacher Prize.

Chemistry class numbers have increased by 44 per cent at level two and more than 100 per cent at level three, from 30 pupils to more than 70, while the school roll has remained static. In another part of Auckland, counsellor Mike Williams brought an innovative approach to bullying at Edgewater College. At the heart of his approach is an aim not to punish but to restore good relationships.

Among the finalists were also two figures whose inclusion would never have been foreseen 12 months ago. Chief High Court Judge Justice Helen Winkelmann brought an unrelenting judicial scrutiny to the Kim Dotcom saga.

She also fired off a riposte to the increasing public criticism of the legal profession, noting that "judges, legal practitioners often have to take the harder road" in a profession with exacting standards.

Tuhoe chief negotiator Tamati Kruger, meanwhile, was emerging as a diplomat of the highest order. His skill, allied to the willingness of both Tuhoe and the Crown to compromise, was responsible for a Treaty settlement that once seemed out of the question. If Kim Dotcom was the biggest story of 2012, Mr Kruger played a major role in one of its biggest surprises.

- NZ Herald

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