We live in the ‘post-truth’ era. Even Oxford Dictionaries says so.
According to this publishing institution, usage of the word shot up by 2000% in 2016 when compared to the previous 12 months. It named ‘post-truth’ its word of the year.
We now live in a world where lies and deception gain traction; where objective fact can be discredited by emotional appeals. From the Crimea to the Middle East, from Brexit to Trump: confusion, obfuscation and broken promises have paved the way to power.
But watching Sir Dave Brailsford and Shane Sutton hauled before a select committee of MPs in the UK Parliament on Monday, none of that theory seemed to be, well, true.
Grilled under the guise of ‘combatting doping in sport,’ the narrative was one of conflicting statements, unclear messages, and at times a mind-bogglingly bouncy back-and-forth debate over semantics, promises, apologies and the odd feisty rebuttal.
The one thing that has been missing in this ongoing crisis for Team Sky and British Cycling is a clear truth. Just look at the smoke and mirrors approach to the contents of the most famous Jiffy bag in sport.
The story of the package delivered to Bradley Wiggins at the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné has become the ultimate in a post-truth narrative. And at times on Monday, the witnesses’ responses boiled down to an appeal to embrace the success of British cycling, and to put faith in Team Sky’s pledged commitment to anti-doping.
Over several months of various explanations and, if the Daily Mail is to be believed, the odd bribe (the events and context are summed up very well in this piece by Shane Stokes on CyclingTips), we now know the contents of the bag. It was Fluimucil, a decongestant, according to Brailsford at Monday’s session.
Yet questions remain. Perhaps it’s because they didn’t utter the initial explanations with enough conviction. Either way, and whether by accident or by design, Team Sky’s post-truth narrative has been their undoing.
The important context here is that there is a Pavlovian reflex in cycling: see smoke, expect fire. Going by the recent coverage, the mainstream press smells blood. Meanwhile, the evidence suggests the wider British public smells something too.
British cycling (little ‘c’) should be at its apogee, thanks to a triple Tour winner, total dominance of the Olympic Games on the track, a 25th Paralympic medal for Sarah Storey, and the three greatest British Olympians of all time in Laura Kenny, Jason Kenny and Bradley Wiggins.
It is a fairly arbitrary barometer, but when this level of success has occurred in previous years, cyclists have simply walked away with the top gong at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award. This year, the best cycling could manage was eighth for Laura Kenny. Wiggins and Froome weren’t even nominated. Something’s not quite right.
Cycling has taken the post-truth era for a spin and it hasn’t worked. It still isn’t working.
In 2016, sport on a wider platform has been undermined by a similar lack of credibility, thanks to the exposure of institutionalised doping, poor drug testing and corruption in the very organisations charged with policing it.
Now, sports fans worldwide are beginning to feel like they are being taken for a ride. It’s very dangerous ground: if you can no longer discern sporting fact from fiction when you turn on your TV, you very quickly turn if off again.
Professional road cycling in general has been ahead of the curve in this sense, plunging into its own abyss in the mid-1990s. It has taken the post-truth era for a spin and it hasn’t worked. It still isn’t working.
Simply winning – pure, blunt and hollow success – is no longer sufficient. Cycling now requires authenticity and certain truths that it’s followers can believe in. It requires transparency. This week’s Sky shenanigans are simply further proof of that.
Perhaps by ditching the Olympic motto of “citius, altius, fortius” – higher, faster, stronger – and replacing it with “veritas” – truth – sport can find a way to redemption in the post-truth era too. Cycling now knows it certainly needs to.
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