Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Slow-Motion Sports

American football is my canonical example of a slow-motion sport. By that I'm not referring to the long pauses between action (what George Will famously likened to committee meetings), and obviously not to the actual plays, in which numerous people with the speed of top sprinters charge in several different directions all at once. Rather, I'm referring to the fact that what you see is not what you necessarily get: before you can cheer for a touchdown, you have to check whether a flag was thrown on the 40-yard line because someone whom you've never heard of who had nothing to do with the play grabbed the jersey of someone else you've never heard of who also would have had nothing to do with the play—save for the jersey-grabbing, which has now nullified the play itself.

Every sport has or is acquiring slow-motion elements. Cricket and tennis now have action-replays that can make or nullify a decision. But these are invoked rarely, and when they are, the result is usually dramatic (in cricket, especially, the uses are sparing and important enough that the official replays are tenser than the play itself). And outside a small set of events there are no fouls or replays, letting stand what you saw as what happened.

Mind, I don't mean “slow-motion” as a pejorative. There is a certain kind of fan for whom that very indecision is part of the charm of the sport, and it leads to a kind of dramatic tension of its own. So be it. That isn't my point here.

What I did want to point out is that we've rapidly acquired a new slow-motion sport: cycling. It used to be that nothing matched the primal immediacy of a mountain stage: a small handful of the most talented riders struggling up an HC climb, attacking and dropping, standing and delivering. The pain was real because the context was real: you didn't need to refrain from delivering a glancing blow because you weren't sure of what flags were flying elsewhere on the field of play. You didn't need a photo finish: the difference in finishing times was in the order of minutes. For an aficionado, there are few more dramatic things in all of human activity.

That's still what happens on TV, but the outcomes have become entirely detached from the action. Who's dirty, who's clean? Who's going to have irregular blood or inhuman testosterone? From Hamilton to Landis to Basso to Petacchi to Vinokourov, what frustrates me most is not watching and wondering “Are they clean?” but rather wondering, “Should I be applauding?”. After all, tomorrow may say today didn't happen, or even next year may say this year didn't happen.

To me, then, the real tragedy is that what has gone out is not trust: that was never there. What has been lost, instead, is the immediacy, the directness, the decisiveness. Cycling has become a slow-motion sport—an ironic statement about an activity in which men and women climb impossibly steep pitches at improbably high speeds—where decisions are made and then unmade over what is, relative to the action itself, geological time. That, to me, is the truly incalculable loss. By the time we watched the finish of Stage 15 on a one-day delay, we'd already heard about Vino's (supposedly) failed dope test, so watching the play was surreal, and about half the comments by the commentators sounded cruelly ironic.

Meanwhile, though, I'll still be getting goose-pimples watching Alberto Con(ta)dor fly out of his saddle like—indeed, even better than—a certain Texan, and hope he won't go the way of all the other climbing prodigies of the past few years, from Iban Mayo to Alejandro Valverde to, perhaps the most dramatic of them all, Damiano Cunego, who rode like Marco Pantani on the way to his Giro win and has subsequently never demonstrated that same form (hmm...).

1 comment:

Mitch Wand said...

LOL! I know you were being serious, but your essay led off with such great indirection, that when you got the point, down in the 4th paragraph, I couldn't help but laugh.