Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Why Wiggo

I am not an enthusiast for participatory TV shows: I do not care whether Britain has strictly got talent, an XFactor, or has to dance its way out of here, with or without an apprentice dragon. I don't usually vote in anything but general elections and those for my learned societies. But I did vote for Wiggo in BBC Sports Personality of the Year- the first time I have done such a thing. I'm also delighted that he has just been given another, rather different award, and is now Sir Wiggo, joining Sir Dave, Dame Sarah and of course Sir Chris amongst the enobled of British Cycling. Undoubtedly this will be a very popular award, even if we didnt, for once, get asked to vote this time.

So why do I, in common with so many others, feel so strongly about Bradley Wiggins' achievements and what is he doing on my blog about academia and DH? I think it is this: Wiggo represents, for me, the end of excuses. He famously said something about finding it hard to take in having won the Tour de France because that sort of thing just doesn't happen to working class boys from Kilburn. But of course it does, as does winning an Olympic Gold a few days later and all manner of awards as a result, SPOTY and the knighthood being just the latest. Wiggo is an inspiration for anyone who has ever had an ambition to do something that they believe, and perhaps others believe, is beyond them, which is why I think he has become so popular. It's also evident, if you read his books, that the kind of work he had to put in did not come naturally. He isn't the kind of person who has an innate ability to stick to a routine over a long period, and thus, despite massive talent, he was in danger of becoming another typical British also-ran, who never quite lived up to his promise. Yet he came back from almost being sacked by Team Sky, via a broken collar bone, to winning the Tour two years later. This he puts down to a mixture of a decision to work harder than he ever had, and to risk very public failure in the cause of success.

He also attributes his success to the support of those who helped him at Team Sky and British Cycling (notably Sir Dave of course). I also find them admirable because they made a commitment to success that would be based on fair means at a time when cycling was riddled with cheating and doping. Team Sky even made a public commitment to win the Tour within five years of being established, which seemed a complete impossibility at the time. Yet they did what they promised, and they and British Cycling have, arguably, surpassed all expectations. They did this by questioning everything that was done, traditionally, in cycling; looking for marginal gains in terms of kit, training, selection of riders, and the way they are looked after. Nothing was a detail too small to be questioned, to the extent that the French press were not sure whether Dave Brailsford was joking when he explained British Cycling's Olympic success as being due to very, very round wheels.

Team Sky and British Cycling also take very seriously the mental side of sport. I was privileged to meet the team psychiatrist, Steve Peters, who is a remarkable human being. He's truly dedicated to making sure that riders are in the best mental form they can be, but not by intimidation or coercion: indeed he is one of those remarkable people who just seem to exude kindness and positivity. He is proof that you can get the best performance out of people with kindness and patience, not, despite much coaching orthodoxy, by yelling at or intimidating people. Steve is a true inspiration to those who work with him. He's also an inspiration to me.

What the triumph of British Cycling and Sky shows is that questioning tradition, attending to detail and doing the right thing do work, although it is harder work than the lazy option of cheating. It's wonderfully reassuring to feel that sometimes the good guys do win and that the baddies are punished- Mr Armstrong, you know who I mean- in real life, not just in the movies. But what of Wiggo? He is certainly a good guy who did the right thing, but for me he's more than that. I think most people have a dream of what they'd really like to achieve that seems impossibly ambitious, and too far out of sight. There's always that temptation to make excuses for not trying, to say to yourself 'Well of course I'd love to do X or be Y, but you know, it could never happen to someone like me, from my background.' It's also very hard to make a public commitment to that attempt, especially if it ends, initially, in a disappointment that seems to prove the doubters right. So most of us don't try, or don't give it their all, because after all it could never happen, so why upset yourself by risking failure, and maybe make a fool of yourself in doing so? I think Wiggo's  experience puts an end to that. He dealt with the doubts, took the risks, put in the work, and achieved what had seemed impossible. A working class lad from Kilburn did win the Tour after all: what excuse is there left for the rest of us?