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13 March 2017

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.

By Ed Smith

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.

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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. 

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda