The one problem that sponsors, team owners, managers & riders all agree exists in professional cycling is a fallacy: The sport does not suffer from an image problem, it suffers from a drug problem.
Team managers, in particular, seem overly fond of referring to the sport’s image problem when speaking to the media about doping issues. Europcar Team Director Jean Rene Bernaudeau recently told Velonation.com that he hopes the Court of Arbitration for Sport find in favor of Alberto Contador in his clenbuterol case, otherwise the “image of cycling is going to suffer.”
Clearly something is amiss when the owner of a reputedly clean team is concerned with the image of the sport rather than the facts of a doping case against a former Tour de France winner. Where then does this imagined image problem come from?
The Parallax View
A parallax describes the condition of an object that appears to change in manifest shape or direction, when in reality it is the position of the observer that has changed. The same is true of ontological concepts, as explored by philosophers such as Hegel and Slavoj Zizek, who used the concept of a parallax view to explain the difference between the symbolic & the real.
Zizek suggests that the symbolic & the real are mutually exclusive, that a person can either be an ethical being (the symbolic) or the result of determined biology (the real), but never both. The space between these two possibilities represent an ontological blind spot, a parallax of sorts.
Far outside of such abstract notions, I would suggest that professional cycling has experienced a very real parallax of it’s own.
The Symbolic Bicycle Racer
Roland Barthes once proposed his sense of the myth of the Tour de France, and the importance of the symbolic nature of the bicycle racer:
“The stake of the combat,” Barthes wrote. “is not to know who will defeat the other, who will destroy the other, but who will best subjugate that third common enemy: nature…The severest ordeal that nature imposes on the racer is the mountain. The mountain: weight. Now to conquer the slopes and the weight of things is to allow that man can possess the entire physical universe. But this conquest is so arduous that moral man must commit himself to it altogether; that is why the mountain stages are the key to the Tour: not only because they determine the winner, but because they openly manifest the nature of the stake, the meaning of the combat, the virtues of the combatant…It is not muscle that wins. What wins is a certain idea of man and of the world, of man in the world. This idea is that man is fully defined by his action, and man’s action is not to dominate other men, it is to dominate things.”
The Real Bicycle Racer
While doping has always been a part of the Tour de France, two factors have forever changed the sport from being largely symbolic to all too real: The rise of global capitalism and the advance of medical technology.
The former has created the need for a more reliable means of winning, while the latter has provided teams with the means of providing sponsors with the financial security they demand. Champion cyclists can now be created by committee, medical technology providing the means to biologically perfect ‘the real.’
Turmoil Within, Turmoil Without
For the public, this battle has become internalized. One no longer sees the symbolic battle between the Tour de France racer and the world around him, but instead wonders at the battle within him; Has this man given in to the world of drugs, or does he race on bread & water alone?
In terms of the real, fans no longer look to a champion’s teammates in assessing his chances, but rather to his staff. Who is his doctor? What is the ethical record of his team manager? Where does he train, and with whom has he been training?
The space between the symbolic and the real, what Zizek would call the parallax view of professional cycling, contains the ontological area that should be of grave concern for anyone who cares deeply about the soul of the sport. It is this philosophical blind spot that contains the truth.
As for the present reality of the sport of professional cycling, there has been a very identifiable shift, and I am no longer speaking of the symbolic and the real. Factually speaking, the sport’s so called image problem represents a shift, not in reality, but in perspective.
The reality of professional cycling has remained constant since the introduction of EPO into the peloton, for whether 95% or 5% of the peloton are doped is inconsequential when the perception of the common fan is that there is no material truth to be known, but rather a subjective notion of faith in some small corner of the cycling world. If the reality of professional cycling has remained unchanged since the 1990′s we must, therefore, assume that it is merely our perspective that has changed.
The symbolic vantage point that we could never fully comprehend has given way to a reality that we can but barely endure. The world has seen behind the curtain, and there is no going back. Our fiction so completely informs the reality of daily life that no amount of science or testing can ever return cycling to what it once was. A new path must be forged, for while the truth may have saved professional cycling in 1999, the present situation requires something more.
There is a great change coming, and as with all change, times of great turmoil and uncertainty.
“Betrayed! Betrayed!” Kafka wrote in The Country Doctor. “A false alarm on the night bell once answered-it cannot be made good, not ever.”