Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Sports That Rely Overwhelmingly on Physical Virtuosity Are in Crisis, as the Trouble at Team Sky Shows

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Sports That Rely Overwhelmingly on Physical Virtuosity Are in Crisis, as the Trouble at Team Sky Shows

Article excerpt

Silence can speak loudly. The inability of Team Sky, serial champions of the Tour de France, to produce written records for their own medical procedures is damning evidence.

Examining my own memory, a different blank spot emerges. This is the first time unless I'm mistaken--that I've written an article about Team Sky. Something inside me resisted joining the cheerleading, or even its counter-movement. I felt sceptical, a scepticism that has hardened. Reluctant to feel let down over the long run, I didn't allow myself to be uplifted or moved by the elite cycling team in the first place.

Team Sky's public philosophy of "marginal gains"--the idea that many tiny advantages create an unstoppable compound effect--is bound up with their problems. In the good times, Team Sky explained winning in terms of PowerPoint presentations and shipping their riders' special mattresses and pillows around the world. With that backdrop, it's a hard sell to argue there aren't records for medical packages stuffed inside Jiffy bags. It's easier to benefit from the excuse of carelessness if you've been George Best all along.

The real lessons of Team Sky have little to do with incremental changes. Instead, look at the grand sweep of history and the development of the human body. The crisis at Team Sky--and the new damage to cycling, already so tarnished by repeated scandals involving performance-enhancing drugs contribute to questions about the long-term trajectory of various types of sport.

Sports that are overwhelmingly determined by physical virtuosity alone are in a state of sustained crisis. As a rule of thumb, if success and failure are measured exclusively with a stopwatch, then the sport faces a bleak future. The near disappearance of track and field as an everyday spectator sport is not explained by "greedy football": it's because people's faith in what they are watching has gradually evaporated.

Second, the management class in all elite, and especially stopwatch, sports faces an existential crisis. Coaches and trainers are more famous and wealthier than ever, yet their contribution to absolute improvement is shrinking to the point of invisibility. In other words, ultra-professionalism has led two trends to develop in cruel conflict: sport embraced a big bang of managerialism just as the likelihood of those managers achieving real progress became much more slight.

Human beings are following in the footsteps of greyhounds and racehorses, whose speeds levelled off decades ago. The pace of new world records has slowed to a trickle. (Many records, set when drug testing was less rigorous, will never be broken.) The golden age of athletics coaching, when superior knowledge offered a huge competitive advantage, is long over.

A third point follows obviously. Most of the legitimate solutions have already been mined. So, for coaches in stopwatch sports who seek dynastic supremacy, performance-enhancing drugs--or, at the very least, the "grey area" of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs), under which prohibited substances or methods are approved to treat legitimate medical conditions--become close to irresistible. …

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