Let’s start with the “who” first. Phil Liggett is a commentator for the sport of cycling. More than that, Phil is “THE voice” of cycling for many fans around the world.
If you have tuned in to watch a major cycling race since the 1980’s, no doubt you have heard the race called by Phil Liggett.
Phil has an unmistakable voice and way about him that make the races so enjoyable to listen to. Phil is British. So for us Americans, the accent is noticeable right off the bat. However, the accent is not very strong, which makes Phil easy to understand. Well, unless he is off on one of his “Liggettisms.” Then you just have to hang on for the ride.
When I began watching cycling on TV as a kid, it was Phil who introduced me to it all. Granted, there wasn’t much coverage of cycling in the U.S. back in the ‘80s, but Phil was the voice I heard. There were these short weekly TV shows that showed highlights of the Tour de France on the weekend. I would watch those shows and get super excited about professional bike racing. I knew nothing about it, but I was really excited. And this British guy was making it all sound so great.
In fact, the memory of those TV shows about the Tour de France were one of the sparks to get me riding my own bike later in life.
Phil The Great
Phil has been the conduit for countless cycling fans to all of the drama and fanfare that professional cycling has to offer. Phil is not perfect, but the passion he has for the sport comes through your TV and you can feel it. He has the sense to know when a big moment has occurred and he is quick to convey the importance of the situation.
- A major attack in the mountains.
- A counterattack by the contender.
- The strong team on the front driving the peloton hard.
- The long lead up and chaos of sprinters pushing for the finish line.
- The breakaway riders trying to survive the peloton’s charge.
Those are the huge moments in a race, and Phil captures them so well. Watch one major race and you may be hooked on the sport and on Phil Liggett.
As the years have gone by, Phil has slipped up more frequently. If you want evidence, just go follow the social media during or after a big race. Twitter comes alive with the comments about how Phil missed this call or that call, or how Phil completely botched a moment.
Listen…let me put you in front of a microphone for 5+ hours to call a road race with no script. Then watch pictures on a tiny TV screen with shots from a helicopter. Then listen to race radio in one ear while you continue commenting through the action. Let’s see you do it error free. Besides, Phil is just about 70 years old.
The guy has paid his dues and done a superb job for decades. He has called cycling races for 13 Olympic Games and 40 Tour de France races (at least that’s what Wikipedia said, so it must be true). This is like Keith Jackson doing college football or like Vin Scully doing Dodger games.
There is simply no substitute.
Phil Liggett has worked for years with his sidekick, Paul Sherwen. Paul is a former professional cyclist who is also British. I know them as the best cycling commentating team in the industry.
Paul is the yin to Phil’s yang. They go together like peanut butter & jelly. You get the idea. Together, they bring the cycling race drama to you and explain it in an easy to digest manner.
Okay, now that I’ve laid it on really thick, let me tell you the other side of the story.
Phil The Not So Great
Over the years, I watched as cycling became overrun with doping news. There were always rumors, allegations, and stories surrounding doping. Every year there was another cyclist who was implicated, caught, suspended, or fired from their team. There was always something going on with doping.
Yet, I noticed that Phil and Paul seemed to steer away from the discussion. Generally, they would mention the story headline and maybe have an interview with someone by a field reporter, but not much more. They seemed to give the doping news just enough time to say that it was covered. Like checking the box.
I was not really concerned with their coverage of the stories except that I relied on them to stay up with the doping news. I just never made the time to read the stories in the cycling news and always hoped my favorite cycling announcers would go into detail for me. They never did.
Phil and Paul always seem to like every rider. They have glowing comments for even the average riders who work for their team leaders (known as “domestiques”), except when the subject of doping came up. Not only would they quickly gloss over the doping news, but they would also add a quick bit of negative mention about the rider in the doping news.
Twisted Spoke has a great take on Phil and the topic.
Always partial to their audience, who pays their salary with eyeballs on the TV, they would “take it easy” on the “home team” riders in the news. For example, for the U.S. broadcast they might say things like, “It’s really a shame that Tyler Hamilton is caught up in these allegations.” Meanwhile, if a Belgium rider was implicated, they would vilify the rider, calling him “despicable.”
This all leads up to the question…how did they treat Lance Armstrong? What is their reaction to the USADA Reasoned Decision?
It is important to note that Phil has been a longtime supporter of Armstrong. Not only obvious in his race commentary, you heard it in his comments before and after races.
Another thing to notice, while more subtle, was the network support of Armstrong’s team. Phil and Paul called races for the American network called OLN (Outdoor Life Network, which turned into Verses, and is now NBC Sports Network). OLN turned up as a sponsor for the U.S. Postal Service cycling team. Armstrong’s team. I understand the connection of an American team being sponsored by an American TV network, but it seemed to be a conflict of interest.
Well, most of the cycling world is one big conflict of interest. Just follow the money and you’ll find hundreds more.
Back to the main question, how did Phil treat Lance?
Well, Phil lost all integrity and what was left of his respect by opening his mouth and commenting on the Armstrong doping saga. Phil stood by Lance and aligned himself with all of the other loony Armstrong supporters. You know, the Armstrong supporters who will tell you that this USADA thing is a “witch hunt” and “Armstrong never tested positive.”
Phil made some terrible comments like these (paraphrased, not direct quotes):
- “I looked into Lance’s eyes and he told me he did not dope. I have to believe that until there is testing evidence against him.”
- “It’s a witch hunt with the goal of getting Lance. Nothing more.”
- “On TV we don’t mix with the riders and I call it as I see it.’
See the Cycling News article about Liggett.
Phil also said that he did not read the USADA Reasoned Decision, the main document detailing the many Armstrong transgressions. WHAT?!? Didn’t read it?!? How can he make any statement about this doping saga and admit that he has not read that document? I’m flabbergasted. (I really just wanted to use that word. Score!)
Even I read that document. Okay, not all of it, but enough to understand what was going on.
Phil The Retired
As difficult as it is to say, I think that it’s time for Phil Liggett to retire. He has done a great job for countless years as a pure commentator. However, as the guy who brings millions of people their cycling news, Phil has failed us. He has embarrassed himself and fueled the fire for cycling fans, leaving us shaking our heads and wondering where the truth really lies.
I think Phil will be around for a few more years before he finally hangs up the microphone. He commented that he has contracts in place for several more years. Of course, those can be voided, but I doubt they would disgrace Phil. After all, he is only on the periphery of this doping saga. Although you could argue he is now a central figure by denying the Armstrong doping even occurred.
I will gladly continue to listen to Phil and Paul, as long as they continue to announce races. After all, they are the only voices I know for races. However, I will tune out when Phil starts going into any doping discussions. He just has no credibility left.