Negative Capability

It’s about more than the contents of Alberto Contador’s urine.

In an 1817 letter to his brother, the English poet John Keats expressed the idea of negative capability, which he described as the capacity for accepting uncertainty and the possibility that certain questions might never be resolved. The great writers of our time, according to Keats, are those with the greatest negative capability. Not surprisingly, he credited Shakespeare with the deepest talent in this regard, and thought that the dynamic tension created by perpetual uncertainty made for the most compelling art.

The story cycling has told us over the last century or so has broached several questions, which we, as fans, are still struggling to answer. One of them, perhaps my favorite, is, “what is the value of suffering?” Another is, “what are humans capable of?” This latter question takes in, not only the realms of diet, training and maximum performance, but also the dark side of the sport, including doping.

It is well document that, as long as there have been bicycle races, there has been dope. What began with brandy, evolved to cocaine, amphetamines, steroids and blood boosters. As fans, we have always been aware, to one degree or another, of the things our heroes did to achieve super human ends, but, as the riders themselves aspired to some level of discretion with their “treatments,” as much to gain an advantage over their competitors as to deceive the fans or the authorities, we have been able to suspend disbelief, to maintain that uncertainty we needed to keep our legends on their pedestals.

If it is natural for professional racers to want to dope, then it is equally natural for fans to want to believe that doping is rare or exceptional in some way. And if both of these things are essentially true, then isn’t it also possible that the tension between these inherent contradictions makes cycling all the more interesting, and all the more human?

The sad truth is that our heroes aren’t superhuman. They are men and women with iron lungs and clay feet. In as much as we are disappointed in those who cheat, do we not also have to acknowledge complicity, for it is we, the fans, who have asked them to be so much more than they are?

I have come to believe that the great sin of the doping cyclist is a lack of discretion. Like the Great Oz, allowing an open curtain to betray the secrets of the Emerald City, the pro cyclist is duty bound to keep his secrets better. We often hear repeated the trope that the dopers are always years ahead of the testers, but if that were true, we wouldn’t be asking ourselves who the last clean cyclist to win the Tour de France might have been. If that were true, the back seats of soigneur‘s cars wouldn’t be locations of such great interest for the gendarmerie of France. If that were true, we wouldn’t have such a hard time believing in the ability of man to transcend himself on two wheels.

This may sound a bit like the classic ‘their real crime is getting caught,’ but it’s actually more than that. Their real crime is being mere mortals, not what they were hired for. They were hired to transcend, but, in the end, only managed to transgress.

With the micro-analysis of Alberto Contador’s urine, cycling’s negative capability, its artistic value, is at an all-time low. We’ve been taught over these last decades, not to marvel, but to suspect. More and more our admiration and esteem are conditional. We are less comfortable with our uncertainty than ever. We still want to believe, but it’s hard to maintain that level of willful stupidity.

I hope that doping, in its current incarnations, has very nearly reached its end stage. Sure, the current techniques still seem to be effective, but their continued application destroys the sport, limits its ability to hold us enthralled to the spectacle. Once you know the rabbit was always in the hat, there’s not much point in clapping when the magician pulls it out.

This is bigger than Alberto Contador. Whether he’s guilty or not, the mercurial Spaniard has not killed professional cycling. In the end, he may just be, to paraphrase John Kerry, the last man to die for a failed strategy. Perhaps that’s a vain and naive hope on my part, but hope is like that, the belief that things can get better and the willingness to wait, wait, wait for them to do so, the willingness to remain in tension, uncertain.

It is, in the end, its own kind of art.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Lachlan

    Great post. Like the core gist, and a great reference to open! And yes, lets hope! If a good test for transfusions is really here, you may actually be right : o )

    One little note on the idea of cheaters (and clean winners I suppose!) Doing-it-for-the-fans / or we made them do it…
    I’ve never bought into that idea, either as a motivation for cheating or for competing in general. Both from personal experience of racing and what I see in pro cycling – it’s always the personal achievement over other competitors and the road that drives the will to win… not to meet the fans expectations. Maybe I’m wrong, but it always feels like an untruth when athletes talk about their fans (except maybe the more egotastic guys like Chiappucci!!). To me they love the feeling of triumph of being the best and that’s a story between their own lactate burn, the road and their competition…

  2. Robot

    @Lachlan – I don’t think we factor into their plans as motivation, so much as we are complicit because we continue to watch, even after we know the truth.

  3. Aaron

    “Negative Capability” – the same trope Ken Burns used to discuss the steroid era in baseball in his recent film The Tenth Inning. Robot, you might have seen that? Wish I could find that video clip online, it was nicely done.

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  5. Bikelink

    I don’t need them to be dominant immortals…I’d like to see people race. I enjoy watching amateurs race (we did find out in Pennsylvania that some Masters racers are doping..losers). Some people are stronger then others. Some people are tactically smarter then others. Some people have stronger teams. These things play out in something called a race. I don’t think the races are more exciting if they have a 1-2mph faster average speed, or due to a lack of predictability over who didn’t get caught doping.

    Basically, this is about whether you’d be happy living in the “Matrix,” a dreamworld where things seemed good (mostly) and you don’t know it’s not real. Sure…some would choose the dreamworld if they could and not know differently (e.g., most American team sports fans), but that doesn’t mean all of us would.

    As a logical extension of your argument, if everyone didn’t dope we’d be fine too. Doping seems inevitable, but I also hear that it’s under more and more control (e.g., decreasing average hemoglobin levels over time). I’m hopeful that in the current era we can go more “all in” on doping testing and make the risk so high it’s not worth the (smaller) benefit of what you can get away with.

  6. Author

    @Bikelink – You said “As a logical extension of your argument, if everyone didn’t dope we’d be fine too.” Yes. True.

  7. Steve Christensen

    In the end, it is not the fans who are at fault, but the racers. It has and always will be their choice to dope and we should never shift the blame to the fans.

    Show me a clean racer, and I’ll show you a fan for life.

  8. dacrizzow

    the tour has been going on for 100 yrs. and riders have been doping for 100 yrs. it will always exist. it doesn’t keep me from watching and being inspired to go out and ride or race. floyd’s solo stage win is still one of the coolest victories i’ve seen. i know the doping is a bit more sophisticated than decades ago. amphetimines vs. EPO. no contest. these are guys that ride 25,000 miles a year. most of it either races, interval or hill repeats. not many relaxing miles with friends. we are asking them to be superhuman. and they are. they’ve already ridden more miles and crashed more times than most of will in a lifetime. what more can they do? apparently only greg lemond was the only rider that never doped. it’s lame and it’s disappointing but it’s the reality. it won’t stop me from watching nor continuing to be the pack-fill in the cat 4’s.

  9. Katherine

    Gene therapy is next, if it hasn’t already started. To quote The X-Files, “I want to believe” that pro cycling can be clean, but I just can’t.

    I agree with BikeLink that watching amateur racing is great. I saw a crit last spring in Texas that was won by a first-time participant on a low-end loaner bike. He was impressively lean and strong from playing other sports. He also didn’t ride smartly, but was so much faster than everyone else that his “dumb” move paid off for the win. It was great watching the other riders try to read him when this guy actually had no tactics and was just going to put his head down and crush everyone with raw power and heart.

  10. Dave

    We need to stop kidding ourselves. Along with everything else we consider sacred–white bar tape, tire label at the valve, embrocation, Roubaix + Flanders cobbles, tan lines, not sharing bottles, whatever–shooting EPO was and is totally and completely PRO. The whole atmosphere of it, the whole silent, secret, unknown culture of dope, of vets and gynecologists who help you score, of quick detours to other countries to shoot up or to score, this is what separates the PROs from all of us. Museeuw driving to Cologne to score in an underground garage. U.S. Postal bus (or was it Disco?) faking a breakdown so the boys could transfuse. Jan Ulrich & Co. hoping back home for an afternoon with friends and fresh juice at the University of Freiburg Clinic. PRO PRO and PRO! Just as PRO as the mythical showers in the Roubaix Velodrome, we just haven’t been able to admit it to ourselves yet! I want to know how these guys do it and how they feel while doing it?

    Maybe some PROs or aspiring PROS can shed a little light. How do you set up a clean deal? Can you shoot it yourself or is it better to have a doc around? If you’re doing a blood transfusion, what kinds of extra safety measures do you need to take? Does shooting testosterone really make you horny? Are there precautions you need to take in France that you don’t need to bother with in Belgium? Is there, ever, a gram of guilt, a second thought or does shooting up make you feel so out of control PRO you’re just ready to roll?

    What’s worse, the athletes who dope or the fans who continue to pull wool over their eyes?

    EPO is PRO!

  11. Steve Christensen

    Dave – Sadly you are right, EPO is PRO.

    I’ll wear my amateur badge with all the pride I can muster, no longer secretly yearning for that PRO moniker.

    PRO cycling is dead.

  12. michael

    there is already a valid testing procedure in place to detect gene therapy, it didn’t make the news much this year but it was validated by WADA and was rolled out at the last Winter Olympic Games.

    EPO is future dead-PRO, not nouveau PRO. wait another 30 years or so when all these current convicted dopers hit their fifties and sixties – i am willing to bet that life-expectancies will be shorter than average for their gender and birth place/country.

  13. Ron

    Fine piece here! I enjoyed it.

    It does bring to mind the Malcolm Gladwell article on football and brain damage from the New Yorker last year. He made an excellent parallel between dog fighting and football: the dog owner knowingly stays in sight of his fighting dog, as it will go to the mat for his respect while in football players who are badly injured keep playing, many stating they want to go on for the fans.

    He concludes by offering a great negative capability, which is the make us wonder to what degree we are complicit in pro football players permanently damaging their brains and bodies because we, the fans, are watching and cheering.

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