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