Cycle racing and the perfect crime

I just read a wonderful blog entry from Cycling Inquisition on the appropriation of nationality and the hyper-real manner in which fans of cycling willingly give up their grip on reality in favour of the fantastic (or not-real). I was foolishly inspired to write something on how we have lost the ability to distinguish the real from not-real in judgments of sporting performance.

I am certainly not the first to engage with the way cycling’s peculiar human-machine blend has given rise to an almost cybernetic narrative in which the contributions of innate physiology, nutrition, training, knowledge, doping and technology (both bicycle and ancillary technology such as HRMs and power meters) become intertwined. Butryn and Masucci (2003), for example, in their entertainingly titled It’s Not About The Book: A Cyborg Counternarrative of Lance Armstrong attempt to show how Lance Armstrong is either a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ cyborg, depending on whether you choose to accept the Livestrong narrative, or the counter-narrative of his blood doping. Their article ends with an intriguing and controversial paragraph which I will return to at the end of this post:

From our perspective, whether Armstrong used any performance-enhancing drugs while he competed is secondary to the larger question of why sporting bureaucracies are intent on rigorously policing the borders, which are suspect at best, between “calculated training” and cyborg corporeality, even as the postmodern conditions render their attempts futile and absurd. Sport fans have come to accept elite performances that are largely recognized as having been aided by technology, and yet the “natural” classification remains the chosen mantra of elite sport. It is this question that deserves the further attention of scholars from within and beyond the sport studies community.

Butryn and Masucci (2003: 141)

Cycling Inquisition refers to the work of Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco in his piece on fantasy appropriation. Baudrillard is particularly relevant to doping in sport, as for him the technologies of surveillance (cf. anti-doping) and plastic surgery (cf. performance enhancement) are emblems of the way reality has become conspicuously absent in our postmodern age. Whereas some commentators on our postmodern condition are happy to revel in pluralism (e.g., Jacques Lyotard and Richard Rorty), where many realities and narratives co-exist and may even communicate (with some degree of translation), Baudrillard argues that reality has become so problematic that it might as well have been murdered (as in The Perfect Crime). To translate to the sporting sphere: with all the surveillance of athletes to ensure anti-doping the reality of doping seems to recede: testing and profiling are technically advanced yet still deliver no truths. We still have no idea who really won the 2010 Tour de France, and may find ourselves unsure even after the CAS have delivered a verdict. Contador may yet be found guilty of doping (having been ‘cleared’), yet he did ‘win’; if and when he is stripped of the title, does this reality disappear, or did it never exist in the first place?

A more traditional analysis of all this would be much less confusing and rather more comforting: Adorno might tell us that we are all suffering from false consciousness when we search for truth in sporting performance, especially when we try to separate nature from the ‘second nature’ we have had a hand in creating (a topic he addresses in his Aesthetic Theory): after all, sporting ability is an amalgam of genetics and environmental factors, and this is where a simplistic analysis of performance enhancement fails. When we judge a sporting performance as beautiful we might desire it to be naturally beautiful, yet cycling is not a natural sport and never has been, as Jeff Ernst reminded us recently. Does this mean that a beautiful win becomes no less beautiful when it becomes clear it was achieved with the help of the pharmacy? Does beauty always have to be moral?

I was recently upbraided (probably with some justification) for expressing my agnosticism about whether Philippe Gilbert’s recent run of wins was achieved without the help of performance enhancing drugs (note that I did not say that I thought he was a doper, I do not). I think the balance of evidence suggests that he is extremely unlikely to be indulging (although this is mainly based on his own public narrative), and that his fondness for Vinokourov and Astana is coincidental if bizarre (and may say more about Vinokourov’s desire to associate with a vocal anti-doping campaigner). However, Gilbert’s performances were indeed extraordinary and hence invite scrutiny, and if we conclude he is doing something different from his competitors there are many components we might consider. One of those is doping, and neither WADA nor the UCI would take an athlete’s word on their ‘natural’ state, so why should we, especially given the duplicitous character of many athletes?

The more important question here is about the motivation to engage in a narrative of anti-doping. For some, it is because they believe ‘natural’ performance is better than an enhanced one; others believe that it is the fraudulent nature of doping which devalues the performance, especially as it makes more ‘natural’ comparisons between athletes difficult; some support anti-doping because it might protect athletes from the health consequences of doping, including the psychological impacts (although being accused or convicted of doping can be equally harmful).

It is the last of these motivations that might lead to a way out of the postmodern morass we find ourselves in: maybe it does not matter whether athletes are natural or honest, as we may be more interested in the spectacle than the underlying mechanisms. We do owe athletes a duty of care, however. They are employed to entertain us (although indirectly), and we should not expect them to die young for us as well. And rather than revelling in the hall of mirrors that means Pat McQuaid’s twitter simulacrum might be more real than the ‘real’ McQuaid (and yes, I am guilty as charged), maybe we should engage in a more pragmatic attempt to regain the real through direct experience. Research projects such as the pioneering I wish I was Twenty One Today reject the mediated view of cycling we have become familiar with, and engage with athletes themselves, by talking to them anonymously. Maybe this kind of work will provide the knowledge to protect athletes from the physical and mental insults that result from doping.

The idea that it does not matter whether athletes dope or not, since enhancement of performance is part and parcel of sport (see Butryn and Masucci, above) is a frightening one for many, myself included, and is not to be accepted lightly. We probably need to acknowledge that natural performance, and honesty, may not be at the heart of sport, and that we are kidding ourselves about our ability to distinguish these attributes in anything other than a partial manner.

Maybe Alexi Grewal should have the last words:

Journalism is not always about what is true or real, but all too often it is about selling you something.  Doping only became a popular subject when it could no longer be avoided and incidentally began to sell our sport. Before then, well, it was just what one had to do, or what one had not to see…


Many thanks to those on twitter who drove me to write this. I am particularly indebted to @autofact, @joepabike, @ciclirati, @velocentric, @propulse, @jasenthorpe and @daveno7.

1 thought on “Cycle racing and the perfect crime

  1. Pingback: Tyler Hamilton blows the whistle… « cyclismespandelles

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