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What's the difference between a sportsman and an athlete?

Sports that rely overwhelmingly on physical virtuosity are in crisis, as the trouble at Team Sky shows.

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. The use of TUEs is at the heart of the controversy surrounding Team Sky.

My final point is more optimistic. As interest drains away from pure physical virtuosity, other sports will benefit: the ones in which decision-making, skill, on-field intelligence and tactics are more inextricably bound up with success. Everyone recognises that winning in modern professional sport relies on relentless dedication; but success is more interesting when it doesn’t rely exclusively on physical optimisation.

In that light, consider how Roger Federer beat Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open this January. Both men are spectacularly fit, but it was not fitness that determined the contest. At the beginning of the fifth and decisive set, Nadal looked the stronger and more resilient player. But this time Federer did something different. He doubled down on a new tactic: hitting high-risk back-hand winners. It worked. He stood tall and hit cleanly. Federer’s backhand technique, often an Achilles heel against Nadal, held firm.

It is a lot easier to enjoy sport as narrative drama when we are confident that the critical advantage is not chemical. Yes, Federer needed exceptional fitness. Yes, aptitude, confidence, optimism and energy are all interconnected, each relying on and feeding off the others. However, the Melbourne result probably hinged on technical and tactical changes by Federer.

In contrast, when fitness alone holds all the ace cards, it is hard to quell the voice of doubt. (This is not to say that stopwatch sports are the only ones with doping problems. The power hitting of Twenty20 makes cricket vulnerable. Andre Russell, the West Indian all-rounder, is currently serving a ban for missing drugs tests.)

British sport used to recognise a distinction between the word “sportsman” and the term “athlete”. In America all sportsmen have been described as “athletes”. I spent my winters in New York when I was a county cricketer; people would say, “So you’re a professional athlete?” – to which I’d reply that, no, I was just a cricketer.

Recently, however, the American usage has become ubiquitous. Now all sportsmen and women are enveloped by the umbrella “athlete” – and the athletic demands within most sports have become more extreme.

But in the future, the old distinction between sportsmen and athletes could be revived. As athleticism hits what the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould called its “outer wall”, the realm of the pure athlete will become increasingly uninteresting as a spectacle. As for the continued ascent of sport, with its complex interplay of factors: I’d put more money on it than ever. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.