Saturday, 1 April 2017

Team Sky and the Soccer-isation of Cycling

Let's clear up one thing at the start- this is not yet another attack (or defence) of how Sky have handled recent developments. There are plenty of other places where the whys-and-wherefores are being picked apart. While Sky's earlier promotion of their own cleaner-than-clean-you-can-trust-us PR image more or less guaranteed  that this situation was going to arise just as a politician who fronts an anti-drink driving campaign will inevitably be caught behind the wheel with a few Dan Lloyd mineral-waters consumed, this is more about what the reactions say about how cycling and cycling fandom has changed, particularly in Britain.

If, like most normal people, you actually read the title of this piece before  the main body, then you can probably guess where this is going. And I don't mean "soccerisation" in relation to the influx of money- well not totally, because Sky's approach to buying up any potential challengers and adding them to the team may sound familar but I mean more about fan dynamics. Ever since 2012, with Wiggo fever and so-called newspapers, that are more likely to be found on the dashboards of sociopaths happy to run cyclists off the road, offering free cut-out sideburns, the British were percieved to have suddenly developed an interest in the sport.  The UK Cycling Expert Twitter feed in particular is a hilarious and genius creation that parodies the new converts. Now this isn't slating new fans- it is indeed a joyus thing to attract new supporters and it is what the sport needs to grow and thrive. However looking at some of the reactions to Sky's recent difficulties seems to suggest that many new British followers are bringing a soccer fan's attitudes across, and this may not be so healthy.

Basically put there are traditions associated with being a football fan in the UK. I say this as an outsider because I don't actually follow it and I am in Ireland (so some of this is also relevant to GAA fans) but when it is more acceptable for politicans to be caught out in a lie about supporting a team than simply saying they aren't really all that into it , there is a lot of social and cultural capital in adhereing to certain customs and attitudes. However these don't translate so well to cycling.

For example I have seen many people feel almost offended that someone else dares to support a different team to them. Twitter exchanges I have seen from people who would otherwise have a lot of common, degenerate into real insults and the calling of the other person's intelligence into question. It tends to lapse into that unthinking brand of patriotism that the UK and USA seem to do so well- basically "this-is-my-team/country-so-are-unable-to-do-any-wrong-because-they-are-MY-team/country-and-any-highlighting-their-shortcomings-is-treachery". And that has largely been a lot of the reaction to the media coverage of Sky (and the irony of a Murdoch linked body complaining about bias and unfair reporting is just too delicious to let pass without comment!). I have a rule of thumb that says as soon as someone calls the questioning of an individual or body a "witch hunt", they may as well run up a flag that says "guilty" and this is one of the terms that keeps popping up in discussions. Simply reporting the fact Sky has been asked questions and their answers found somewhat wanting is now seen as bias and "tall poppy syndrome". Repeated slogans and mantras of groupthink ("haters are going to hate"; "witch hunt";  "the media love to build people up and knock them down" etc) are being used against people making relevant enquiries to try and get to the bottom of what has been going on.  The questioning of "my team" is now seen as a direct personal attack on the individual fan, since they are the ones who have chosen to hitch their wagon to Brailsford's band of brothers (with no room for the sisters according to Jess Varnish. Lizzie Deignan and Nicole Cooke).

This approach to fandom is really quite alien to cycling. Most die-hards are fans of particular riders rather than teams- indeed it is hard to give allegiance to a team whose name (and nationality) can change from season to season based on who is paying the rider's wages. There is also the fact that many people will have a team they support for the Classics, another for the Grand Tours and their national squad for the Olympics or World Championships. Sky in many ways are the cycling equivalent of the late 90s-early 2000s Manchester United- they are an easy team for the late-comer or casual observer to get behind because of their success and British identity (is it wrong to point out that neither of Sky's Tour winners were actually born in the UK...?) and being a well funded operation. The tribalism of soccer is not needed in cycling and in fact could be quite damaging.  New fans are very welcome and are to be encouraged, but they also need to be reminded that the structures and traditions of our sport do not fare well when people become so blinded to team loyalty that they are unwilling for questions to be asked. One reason Lance got away with what he did for so long was an unwillingness and inability to openly question. If a Sky fan gets bent out of shape every time a team rider gets asked about doping they would end up ressembling the route map for the Ronde van Vlaanderen. It is unfortunate but for journalists doing their jobs means that Chris Froome is going to have to answer the same question thrown at him in various languages every day he wears yellow. To be fair to Froome, he handles this with grace and politeness, so maybe the Sky fans need to learn from him, and await the outcomes of the UKADA investigation before feeling put upon.

This week's Cycling Weekly included the results of a poll around attitudes to Sky and the vast majority of printed responses went more for attacking the journalists and MPs than actually engaging with the premise of the question. However, at the risk of falling into the trap of stereotyping nationalities I ask this- if it had been Katusha or Astana in the firing line would the Sky (and British Cycling) fans be responding to it in the same way?

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