Suspension of Disbelief

Early in the 19th Century the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge—famed for his poem Kubla Khan and laudanum—coined the term “suspension of disbelief.” It was his way of codifying the belief that a fantastic story if “infused with human interest and a semblance of truth” could be made believable. It’s what we did to our parents in high school when we lied about our whereabouts. We used the names of friends and familiar locations, places that we frequented in an effort to throw them off the scent. For me, it worked until some time in my senior year.

If my opening paragraph isn’t sufficiently obscure, give me a second. I’m now going to pull in T.S. Eliot, who coined the term “objective correlative” early in the last century. It is an image that explicitly defines something that can otherwise be difficult to describe. To that end, I submit the image above from the film “Blade Runner.” Whether you like science fiction or not, the work has widely been hailed as the finest sci-fi film ever committed to celluloid. And for reasons that may never be fully plumbed, it achieves that element crucial to all science fiction: suspension of disbelief. We don’t question that there are androids, that it never seems to stop raining or that the 21st Century’s version of the car flies, as shown above.

Let’s consider the alternative. Above is a still from the Disney film “John Carter,” arguably one of the biggest flops of this year. Post-mortems on the film have decried the wooden acting, the Swiss-cheese script and the hyperbolic special effects. I can’t say what killed the film, but I know what killed it for me. I had been excited to see the Edgar Rice Burroughs masterpiece made into a film, but was dismayed the moment I saw the first trailer and it was precisely because of John Carter’s ginormous jump contained with said trailer. I recall commenting to my wife, “Okay, I’m out.”

It was that whole suspension of disbelief thing. “John Carter” takes place on Mars and has loads of jumping in it; it’s a thing, as they say, and over there (Mars, that is) to jump is to sak. The problem is that seconds into the trailer comes this jump that looks like Evel Knievel sans motorcycle and, well, it just looks silly. So I didn’t go see it. (As a complete aside, there’s a pretty fascinating discussion of bigger-than-life jumping in the movies in a piece published on Slate, though I think it gets the conclusion exactly wrong, in part because of the dismal box-office take of “John Carter.”)

Suspension of disbelief is crucial not just to science fiction, it’s crucial to all story telling. Imagine if you didn’t think that women really talk to each other and hang out as portrayed in “Sex and the City.” Apparently lots of people believe there are women exactly like them—and why shouldn’t they?

So when Philippe Gilbert stormed to victory at the World Championship Road Race on Sunday, if you’re anything like me you felt relief, the relief of seeing a longstanding omission—the absence of Philippe Gilbert from the podium—finally corrected, and along with it you felt elation, that Dopamine spark of joy at seeing a rider you like spank the field. Gilbert is a rider whose style I like and—more importantly—whose riding I’ve been hoping is clean. But that’s a problem; for suspension of disbelief to work you have to be all-in. The moment you even ask the question about whether or not what you’re seeing or reading is real, the illusion has been busted—metaphorically and literally.

I actively want to believe that a clean rider beat a field that was partially or maybe even mostly clean. Actually, it doesn’t matter just how clean the rest of the field is, so long as Gilbert was clean. That’s the key. In winning, cycling is as clean as the winner.

Which is why I hated the Olympic Road Race outcome with a passion that I (otherwise) reserve for child molesters. Alexander Vinokourov is part of that generation of riders, guys whose knowledge of the sport is so predicated on medical assistance that I suspect they have ceased to believe they can achieve anything remotely like their doped form through clean methods. It’s a kind of worst-case-scenario for institutional memory, dysfunction that persists simply because all other ways have been forgotten. Clearly, Vinokourov’s statements following his suspension and his refusal to talk about his “dark page” and his inability to understand what this issue was when he decried that he had only engaged in the training methods used by everyone else have shown him to be a rider that cycling can do without. Seeing him win the gold medal was a moment that didn’t fill me with the slightest bit of elation. The question I asked myself was, “What are the chances that he’s clean?”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the big problem. But here’s the thing: It’s not Vino’s fault. And that I’m asking questions about guys like Gilbert and Bradley Wiggins isn’t their fault, either. The problem lies with the UCI. I have observed in other pieces that the UCI has long been a status-quo organization. Until recently, they really only ever made efforts to change the sport after colossal embarrassments. And defining those embarrassments is easy; they are any time the sport makes international headlines for a reason not connected with a win. Tom Simpson dies during the Tour de France. International headlines. Bad for business, need drug tests. A few Dutch cyclists die in their sleep because of a little-known drug that turned their blood to pudding. Not even national news? Whew; stay the course. Olympic gold medalist Fabio Casartelli dies after hitting his head in a crash. International headlines complete with color footage. Bad for business; need helmet rule. A soigneur with enough doping products to start a pharmacy is stopped at the border. More international headlines. And now, the biggest name in cycling in the last 30 years has been shown to be playing the game, well, the way it’s played.

Bad for business? Yeah, ya think?

Whether or not the allegations that the UCI covered up positives by Armstrong are true, it doesn’t matter. There is plenty of damning evidence that they only ever acted enough to maintain the appearance of a clean sport. Had they truly been serious about cleaning up the sport they would have gotten serious about testing for EPO in the wake of the death of Bert Oosterbosch, the first of those Dutch cyclists to die in their sleep. They wouldn’t have waited years and years to come up with the half-assed solution of testing hematocrit levels. No, had they been serious, they would have begun investigating a test for EPO before Greg LeMond retired.

But let’s take a moment to consider the situation the UCI was in. Hein Verbruggen had inherited the mantle of a sport that had been doped since the first running of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Up until the 1990s, an approach of making the sport clean enough that no one was dying had more or less worked. If there is one sin for which we should forgive him, it is that he believed he should stay the course, that staying the course was the best approach. What he didn’t anticipate was American society. What he didn’t anticipate was a world where you’re either a saint or a sinner, but never both. What he didn’t anticipate was the perfect storm of Lance Armstrong, Macchiavellian doping and ambitious American investigators.

Verbruggen’s sin, and now by extension Pat McQuaid’s, is that he claims that the sport is clean, the UCI did all it could, all it needed to, that no more could have been done than was. Which is just crazy talk. The first lesson you learn as a bike racer is that just because you won a bike race you should never, ever think that means you are the fastest guy on a bike.

And so I submit to you the de facto evidence that the UCI has not done enough: Every time someone wins a big bike race our response is not to celebrate; rather it is to wonder, to ask the question, “Was that athlete clean?” Why was Bradley Wiggins asked about his training methods at the Tour de France? Simple, because he was wearing the yellow jersey.

We have lost the suspension of disbelief. And given how hard most of us want to believe, how much we love the sport, the heartache is more than some of us can bear.

Mr. McQuaid, Mr. Verbruggen, you haven’t done enough. Not by a long shot, and if you think that suing Paul Kimmage is the answer, then you, sirs, are unfit for your respective offices.

You’re not kings and shooting the messenger is no longer a viable option. The peasantry has risen up and we will defend him.

We’ve asked you for a clean sport. You can’t seem to manage the task. And now the talk is of starting a new federation, one that understands the stakes of the game, the will of the fans. Stay tuned.


Images: Warner Bros. Pictures, Disney Pictures, Fotoreporter Sirotti

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  1. Rod Diaz

    Fully agree, Padraig. I have been a vocal “hater” in the LA matter. But most of my vitriol is not towards him, its towards the system that not only allows but encourages “enhancements” as long as it is a good story and increases revenue.

    When Contador attacked in the Vuelta, I remembered Landis. When Sky was riding the Tour, I remembered Postal. And Pat and Co. are trying to convince me they did all they could… well, in my view, they are either incompetent or corrupt.

    Trying to shut down criticism makes me think its the latter.

    (PS – Blade Runner is my favourite movie!, and one of my favourite books too. There’s something that just “clicks” about it that lets us forget that there are space-traveling assassin cyborgs, and instead becomes a story of what it is to be human).

  2. Chris

    My reaction to the victories by Vino and Gilbert were exactly the same as those you describe. It also made watching the Vuelta difficult as my gut precluded any desire to see Valverde win, my psyche made me wonder whether I should feel the same way about Contador, and when it was all over I wondered whether I was wasting my time worrying about any of this.

    Vino and Valverde are villains, Basso too perhaps. I’ve offered forgiveness to David Millar and Vaughters, but not sure about Dekkar. And for Contador who ate the wrong steak(?), and poor Frank Schleck who was poisoned(!), I don’t know what to think.

    All I can hope for is for the UCI or its replacement to impose serious rules regarding doping (and enforce them consistently) and for the next generation of pro cyclists to give me a opportunity to suspend my disbelief anew.

  3. tinytim

    RedKitePrayer is a great forum and I appreciate having the opportunity to read and comment on the many articles that are written (seems like you guys crank like 2-3 per day). I’m totally over the dope talk though. I think that we are just spinning our wheels in the mud. It’s easy to fixate on doping as a topic, especially when all that come to light recently. But its gotten to the point where doping has become this extrahuman conflict which in turn is more polarized than our nation. I just think it would be a better use of everyones time if we didn’t talk in circles( not that anyone here has or does it intentionaly, but the saturation and conflict of doping results in a conversation that sucks).

  4. Eric

    It dawned on me the other day that I really don’t care that Dish Network does not carry NBC Sports Network. I am not missing watching the Pro Tour at all. I have given up. It could be a fun sport but I am tired of watching, admiring, and finding any of the riders personable. Tyler Hamilton interviewed briliantly and rode extremely well, Floyd the same. I saw a joke interview with the Schlecks that made me think, these guys have a great sense of humor, I would probably get along with them well.

    But in the end, I just find out that they are cheats and liars. Is it there fault? In large part, yes. Strictly, no. I have yet to hear anyone in pro cycling put forth even a bad plan to clean up cycling.

    So I am left to believe that as long as the viewership is there, the money is flowing, and the governments don’t/can’t successfully prosecute, then the UCI, in my opinion, does not appear to care that the riders are performing unnecessary medical experiments on their bodies.

    So Padraig, I am like you are with “John Carter”. I am out. Let me know when it is clean and can be proven. Until then, I will be out on my bike enjoying cycling as it should be. Drug free.

  5. Jim D

    Vino: as I was watching the race to the line I truly wished that whoever was second had a burst of power and beat your ass to the line. Anybody but you. The day should have been won by someone younger, cleaner, no name. It is time for the new generation. Please stay clean so I don’t regret whom I cheer for. Jim

  6. Boy Howdy

    I understand the feeling that we are spinning our wheels – there certainly is no shortage of opinion pieces and news articles these days on this subject.

    But we are from from stuck in the mud.

    Omerta is being pulled back, bit by bit. We are getting a much more truthful picture of the last two decades.

    And what is the response to the clamoring of Glasnost with the regulatory agencies? Threats. Intimidation. Lawsuits against the press and threats of extending that to riders, past and present.

    That is not the sound of wheels spinning in mud. That is the sound of schisms and the attempt to cover-up, divert attention, and change the dialog. It’s not going to hold for long, and they know it.

    More to the point, this shit is about to get real.

    Mr. McQuaid, tear down this wall!

  7. Hautacam

    +1 for Eric at 7:07 above. I’m happy riding, don’t miss the pro tour stuff. So much else to spend my time on.

    I like Gilbert. Hope he still has the title in 10 years.

  8. tinytim

    Boy Howdy, You right man. When LA is served with a sopena to testify against Bruyneel and a bunch of other cronies, the shit is gonna hit the fan. I think what we will see is the big picture in regards to US postal and it’s ‘techniques’ that were employed to win (sell off bikes to buy dope!!!??!). But the light is really gonna shine on UCI and McQuaid. The UCI and McQuaid needs to be held acountable for all of the corruption that they encouraged and endorsed. Now that I think about it, I’m really proud that the US are the ones really pushing for this transparency and are pulling it off.

  9. Randall

    It stinks that such a wonderful race even needs to have this applied to it, but after a moment, you are totally correct Padraig.

    At this point, I don’t think resolution is inevitable, but the precipice of inevitability is approaching, and to relent might endanger something that has only now been enabled.

    To modify Boy Howdy’s sentiment: this sh*t better finally get real.

  10. Dave

    You hit this one out of the park. I WANT to love professional cycling, but I can’t any longer. I’ve heard so many sanctimonious denials and lies that I now just have to assume that EVERY rider is dirty. It’s sad that our sport has been allowed to reach this point.

  11. Souleur

    +1 Dave

    Excellent assessment Padraig

    I do probably parse our peloton down a bit more, in that there are indeed villians, and heros of the sport, but neither is fixed forever…as neither are we…I believe

    I believe for any individual/cyclist there is always room to change, they all act the same when caught…lie/cheat/lie, but some of them do confess and accept their just reward…ala Millar. Vino did his time, and I was glad to see the old man win his last race.

    Similarly, never can one be so big as to fall

    and to see Gilbert win was a great day!

  12. Mark Schwitau

    Regarding comments from “Chris Says”: On the outside it almost seems that you have easily forgiven all North Americans with doping history, but still condemn any other European or Eastern European with a past history. I seem to read a lot of similar viewpoints regarding the impossibility of any blame being cast on the good ole white boys of North America. And if you happen to be an Italian or Spanish European of Latin descent (read: sometimes a smidgen darker) ….. Well, fuhgetaboutit! Throw those guys under the bus twice. We place a lot of focus on Basso, Valverde and Contador …. buts what about those gents brought out recently by J. Vaughters? And the peculiar whole sale drop out of several other top American riders from the Olympic team?. Why no compulsive bashing of those guys. They seem to be getting a pass (somewhat). My theory isn’t 100% of course, and surely everyone can come up with exceptions to my observations. Perhaps it’s just Americans being pro “home team”. Doping is doping …. Even if the guy from good ole Boulder or NorCal does it.

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