Cycling is a foreign country: exoticism, skulduggery and the British.

July 2, 2017

Why is it that British success at the Tour de France (or anywhere on the Continent) seems so dissonant? Why is it such a shock to many of my fellow British that it might be built on deceit and immorality? Is it that “foreign” cyclists and cycling tap into a rich British desire to both lust after the exotic, yet believe it to be dangerous and disreputable? There is nothing new about the ITV coverage of the Tour de France focusing on British riders, but once upon a time you knew none of them would win, and that somehow made it all right.


In these days of explicit and horrid racism, of insane and pathological isolationism, it is hard to remember the curious relationship Britain had with Europe in 1980s when I first started watching cycling. I can still remember the huge cultural shift signalled by the disappearance of duty on the ferries and the sudden feeling that we were European (oh happy days). But we never were: cycling was yet another sport that signalled our deep otherness: don’t race on the Continent you’ll end up on drugs, or worse liking foreign food or speaking Flemish. And of course, the Tour de France IS SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT FRANCE (see Roland Barthes). If there is nothing more foreign than fritjes with mayonnaise (and cyclocross racing being popular) there is nothing more spectacularly French than le Tour. British riders can compete, but must fail tragically to win or even finish. They must decry foreign practices like race-fixing and doping.

Of course this is all fantasy. The domination of that race by Belgian, Italians, Spanish, Germans and even Americans (not forgettig bit parts played by Swiss, Dutch, Luxembourgeois, Danish… and an Australian) developed its internationalisation over a long period. But we still think we are better, have no real sense of our connection with continental Europe, and retain a false belief in our post-Imperial exceptionalism. That’s why Wiggins, Froome and Co freak us out so much. And why Chris Boardman’s epic failure does not. To win the Tour de France is demostrably un-British, and removes a necessary distance from our exotic object of desire.


What’s in the package, Dave? Thinking outside the box…

October 17, 2016

I spent an hour and a half yesterday listening to Lionel Birnie and Richard Moore interviewing Dave Brailsford. The two main topics were TUEs/Corticosteroids/Tramadol (related to Fancy Bear(s) and the JTL accusations) and the contents of the medical package delivered by hand to Wiggins at the end of the 2011 Dauphiné Libéré by Simon Cope. Here I’m going to focus not on facts but on their presentation, and what Brailsford’s language betrays about thinking at British Cycling and Team Sky. This is probably sensible, since on actual medication, doping and the contents of that jiffy bag Brailsford said almost nothing. That he spent over an hour doing so is relevant in itself, as we shall see.

There were two main elements to Brailsford’s narrative, regardless of the efforts of the interviewers to ascertain facts:

  1. Brailsford took personal responsibility for what he regards as a Public Relations failure; and
  2. he takes no responsibility for any possible failings in regard to Anti-Doping that may or any not have occurred. 

Leaving aside the question of whether Sky or BC have been implicated in the misuse of medication for sporting enhancement, it is notable that in his narrative there is a clear boundary between what is outside the sporting arena (whether legal or not) and how it is presented. This is congruent with the view of sport as a goal-driven activity: a medal factory where the extent to which a practice is permitted is judged only in relation to its success. In such a world the use of medication is governed by what is permitted and might enable a competitor to perform at their best. Outside this box lies the world of how a team would like to be seen, and the world presented by Brailsford was one in which the following words were repeated knowingly and frequently:

  1. Trust
  2. Rules
  3. Authority
  4. Clean
  5. Openness

Within the first minutes of the interview, given the opportunity to tell us how Sky have lived up to their initial mission (to win the Tour clean with a British rider; to do so without employing those with connections to doping) Brailsford claims that they have been consistent in applying their values but have learnt from mistakes. His description of their behaviour, however is at considerable variance with this. Sky employed an ex-doping doctor and many tainted team staff (only to ditch them later); and they sought to do everything within the rules to maximise performance. The only part of their behaviour which is coherent with their initial mission is the outcome: all else has been a moveable feast. Brailsford continually apologises for being too open with the press, leading to a lack of control over the narrative, but nowhere apologises for the approach Sky have taken to the use of corticosteroids or tramadol (whether as extensive as the interviewers suspect or he will admit). All these medical decisions were made and confirmed by experts employed by the team and the authorities: he simply trusted these actors to be correct. The gap between his view of sporting governance and sporting doctors and the reality exposed by scandal after scandal in amateur and professional sport is enormous.

In order to understand why Brailsford (and the paraphernalia of Sky and BC) display such a dissonant narrative a diversion into organisational theory is helpful. I don’t want to oversell this approach: Brailsford could have constructed this narrative of subservience to authority simply to get out of telling us what was in the package, but there is nothing much new here in his approach, it follows a familiar pattern. 

I’ve sat through many dull days listening to management and leadership educators telling me about the theories of Argyris and Schön, and I won’t bore you with detail. Moreover, I am not an expert in organisational psychology, more of an end-user. However, the gap between behavior and narrative we see here is characteristic of an organisational malaise which is rather well captured by their thinking. Brailsford’s narrative here represents Sky’s “espoused theory”: a set of beliefs which are presented as governing values. These differ from the implicit theories or “theory in use” that govern actual behaviour. Such a gap is common in organisations which exhibit what Argyris and Schön call “single loop” or Model I learning/behaviour: learning that only reflects on behavior rather than the contexts for that behaviour. Model II or “double loop” learning steps outside current thinking and is able to consider higher level solutions. 

To illustrate the trouble single loop learning can get you into Sky are a perfect case: the theory in use is one in which success is valued regardless (British Tour de France victories achieved) and all efforts and practices are permitted as long as they are considered by the authorities to be within the rules. This is not the same as a win at all costs approach,  but it is not necessarily compatible with being “clean” as competitors, staff and regulators often cheat or manipulate the system in a goal driven culture. If there is a gap between the goal and its acievability a Model I approach will never question the obvious source of this gap: the lack of an obvious British Tour contender. Everything else follows on from this error. A Model II approach might have responded to Wiggins 2010 disappointments by maintaining a “clean” approach and resetting goals, instead Sky employed a set of experienced old school staffers, focusing on psychological and physiological preparation. Regardless of questions around their espoused ethical stance and their practices, this approach was catastrophically tested in 2011, when Wiggins crashed out of the Tour. The attempt by Sky later that year also demonstrated the single loop: Wiggins was favoured in the Vuelta despite the clearly better performing Froome; all focus was on the rider destined to be the first British Tour winner until well after it became clear that Froome was the stronger rider. There are, admittedly elements of double loop here: the readjustment of goals from Tour to Vuelta, for example. But these were always tactical, never impinging on the strategic objective.

Compare the approach of Brailsford at Sky with Vaughters at Slipstream: the lesson Vaughters learnt from USPS (and Millar at Cofidis) was that a singular focus on performance was not conducive to incentivising an ethical culture. Instead of winning clean, the new value hierarchy was to compete clean and celebrate wins where they occurred. Although this goal has not always been clearly exhibited by Vaughters’ team it enabled the team to employ staff and riders with histories of doping without creating an environment in which this knowledge would need to be deployed to bridge a gap between  aspiration and reality.

To finish, do go and read this piece summarising the theories I touch on here, especially the characterisation of Model I and II approaches. The Sky approach is not entirely Model I, but where it fits it explains how they have reached such a dissonant and unhealthy pass.

I realise, to mix metaphors, that there is a huge elephant in this room. But I can’t tell you what Wiggins was sent just before travelling to a final altitude training camp. Nor can I tell you how much corticosteroid or tramadol use there was out of competition at Sky by riders on that team. On the basis of the interview it is entirely plausible that Brailsford may not be able to answer these questions, although this seems hard to believe and even harder to accept. What we do know is that there was a TUE granted in 2011 for a powerful drug that most experts seem to regard as performance enhancing and medically excessive drug at just the optimum time for its non-medical use. Whether Froome or Wiggins are “clean” British winners remains to be seen, but the culture of their team could certainly do with some more honest and open critique from within.


When a punch is not just a punch: vigilantism, fascism, sport and fiction

July 10, 2016

Superheroes conflate goodness with hitting things. For the superhero genre, the best person in the world is the one with the greatest power; beating evil is a matter of hitting it harder. A world in which force and goodness are one and the same and both always triumph is a world in which you’re essentially worshipping force…

(Berlatsky, 2013)

[Warning: this piece contains movie spoilers and the examples portray real and fictional violence]

Yesterday Chris Froome punched a spectator during a Tour de France stage. I was surprised to see many commentators (both professional and amateur) supporting this violent act: in summary, they argued, fans get too close to riders and are endangering them in their workplace, therefore a punch is justified through the principle of self-defence. I found myself disagreeing with this rationale as I do not think such actions are justified in general or in this particular instance. The punch was, I would argue, both disproportionate (the fan seemed to be presenting a potential rather than immediate threat) and a vigilante act outside the expectations of rider behaviour. The race jury agreed with me, and the video evidence might form a fairly good basis for an assault prosecution in other circumstances. Whilst some have characterised the blow as an elbow/forearm strike, it certainly isn’t a push or a barge, and is clearly premeditated – unlike George Bennett’s collision today (with an almost stationary fan on a bend) which looks almost reflex and unavoidable.

I do not intend to dwell on all that though. Opinions are cheap. The more interesting debate to be had is around the collision between sport as a fictional spectacle and the reality it occupies. Froome and the fan are real people: their altercation resulted in physical consequences. Many of those who were excusing and even praising Froome’s actions seemed to be revelling in a vigilante approach to fan control. The argument goes like this: if the fans are dangerous and can’t be controlled by the authorities then this is justification for taking the ‘law’ into one’s own hands. There are two components here: the right to take action as an individual and the extent of this action. Whilst many might find a shove or barge acceptable in relation to the first component, the escalated level of response in this case seems to tap into a desire for disproportionate action: punishment rather than self-protection. And this takes us, depressingly, to the links between vigilantism and fascism.

Before getting all serious though, we need a detour into the pure fiction of the superhero, away from the hybrid fictional reality of sport. We’ve been here before of course. I’m not the first person to associate champion cyclists with superhero narratives. Take seemingly inhuman performances, add technological and biological performance enhancement, and you just need morally self-righteous violence for the superhero analogy to be complete. And we all know what happens when the morality turns out to be fake: Armstrong looked like a superhero until he was exposed as a bully and fraud. What concerns me is that in these days of the hyper-real the violence of Armstrong  (mainly psychological) or Hinault (rather more err… direct) isn’t just entertainment or spectacle, but also real: the victims (Simeoni; French trade unionists) are real, and although we can treat these events as fictions to be amused by or learnt from, they actually happened.

In a recent piece by Chris Yogerst in The Atlantic an attempt was made to argue that our fictional superheroes are not fascist, and that their vigilantism somehow aligns with more liberal tendencies. Benjamin Welton, in a slightly more sophisticated piece, contrasts the actions of Dirty Harry of Magnum Force with Frank Miller’s Batman: the former, while on the edge of the rules, works to maintain them, whereas the latter undermines and eventually destroys them. Noah Berlatsky unlocks this further: for him superheroes may represent fascism, but the stories they are embedded in allow us to critique the logical consequences of their hyper-vigilantism. They are stories about the roots and consequences of vigilantism/fascism and the desire for power through violence and can be read as propaganda and/or critique. Some of the more deviant superheroes  (Wonder Woman, The Comedian, Deadpool) are written to more explicitly expose this critical tendency: in turn they show how you can be a superhero who isn’t a man and wants peace, how a superhero ends up a sadistic and amoral government stooge, or how you can be “super, but… …no hero”, revelling in comic nihilistic carnage.

 

But this is all fiction, not sport. Unlike the commentary on the Vietnam War in Watchmen, Froome’s punch is not just a fictional act, a signifier which connects him with the “hard men” of yesteryear. It is a real punch, probably born out of frustration, but nonetheless the exercise of excessive violence given the context. The surplus is symbolic, a message to all fans: get too close and you’ll get what’s coming to you. I’m happy to watch fictional violence when there is some effort to do more than just glorify it, but in real sport, no thanks. The fictional Jonathan E in Rollerball couldn’t tell the difference between sport and reality, and look where that takes him: the conventional reading of the apocalyptic ending of this movie is that it is a triumph of the individual over a corrupt dictatorship of corporate evil. But Jonathan E merely becomes a focus for undifferentiated glorification of a brutal spectacle, which when stripped of its social purposes and the rules that map onto these is just a sporting Lord of the Flies

We live in an age where fascism once again seems possible as a mass political movement. Trump, Brexit, ISIS, Putin and the like point inexorably towards the idea that folk is good and might is right. The frustrations of riders towards race organisers and federations over safety are real, but they do not justify any violence at all unless one believes that violence is the solution to frustration. It is all too easy for the powerful to co-opt our frustrations and their violent expression.

It may just be a punch to you but to me it symbolises all that can become wrong with sport. Froome may be super (and his winning attack certainly was), but he’s no hero…


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