The Certainty Principle

Are the fastest men on earth slowing down or is everyone else speeding up?
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Usain Bolt is very fast. But is he fast enough to outrun uncertainty?

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Due to circumstances, I was unable to watch Stage 18 of the Tour de France live, which meant I had to settle for the highlights programme the following day. The delay ought to have spoiled my enjoyment. Of all the gifts sport capriciously bestows upon its wretched subjects, the most valuable (to this wretched subject, at least) is uncertainty. Despite your best-educated guesses, you have no earthly clue what's about to happen. What's more, the participants have no clue either. Ideally, the contestants would like the event to proceed as if guided by rails, but no one can guarantee that they can lay down the tracks quickly enough. It's less like a semi-improvised drama than a weather system where one tiny aberration can have untold consequences, and several tiny aberrations can have unspeakable consequences. But it's not merely the release of the tension that is so attractive—it's the tension itself. To leave yourself at the mercy of events might be unbearable at times, but not as unbearable as not being able to. Knowing the outcome in advance tends to leech some of that essential spirit from proceedings.

It may surprise and dismay regular readers to learn that for once, I was dead wrong. In truth, I should have known better, because I knew the stage had been won by Mark Cavendish.

As the stage entered its final kilometres, the day's breakaways had almost been dealt with by the peloton led by Cavendish's Sky team. But there remained Luis León Sánchez and Nicolas Roche, who made one last attack as the finishing line came into view. The specialist sprinters were massing behind them, but it was touch-and-go as to whether they could bridge the gap. They couldn't, but he could. From way back, Cavendish launched his sprint and fired past Sánchez and Roche. By the time he crossed the line in first place, he was going so fast you feared his nose would turn red-hot. The overhead replay is a thing of beauty. In it, Cavendish's speed is slightly exaggerated, because neither Sánchez nor Roche is a sprinter. But it wouldn't have mattered if they were—Cavendish would still have made them look as if they were cycling backwards. Roche admitted afterwards that he hadn't seen Cavendish overtake him. The first he knew of it was when Sánchez stopped pedalling and looked around as if he'd just seen Alfred Jarry's vision of Jesus the cyclist made real.

It was almost as viscerally thrilling as sport gets. It was so breathtaking, it left you winded to the point where the only possible physical response was to laugh. That's the test right there.

Winning like this is more or less a habit for Cavendish. That was his 22nd Tour stage win. His 23rd came two days later on the Champs-Élysées, giving him the record for a sprinter and fourth place on the overall all-time list. In addition, he has won ten stages on the Giro d'Italia and three on the Vuelta a España, and he currently wears the rainbow jersey as world champion. Not all of these wins make Cavendish look like his legs are designed by a Formula One team. Sometimes, it's as if they're designed by NASA. When there's a chance that he might be involved in a sprint finish, it's something you don't want to miss, even if you have to wait a day to see it.

In other words, Cavendish is reminiscent of nobody so much as Usain Bolt. It's not just the pleasure of seeing someone do something very, very well, or the thrill of seeing someone go eye-laceratingly fast, although it's certainly both of those things. The impact is probably greater in the flesh than it is on TV, where the sonic boom is muffled, but there's still something unreal about it. It's not just someone going faster than a load of other someones; that would be easy to take in. Here is a bunch of people performing at the very limit of what a human is capable of, yet someone emerges from the pack... Someone, or something: it could only be an alien presence. A sprint, either on the road or the track, flashes by so quickly that you can't fully compute it as it's happening. That moment when a runner crosses the line and you look to the bottom-right of your screen and gasp at the time is a strange one, when you think about it. Why should you need the numbers? It's like being thrilled at someone's VO2 max. But it reinforces the effect of what you've just seen, while at the same time serving as confirmation of the unbelievable. It does some of your brain's processing work for it, because your brain is busy going wheeeeeeeeeee...

As I say, though, it's more than that. It's that from something as uncertain as a sporting contest, they create, if not certainty, then the illusion of certainty. You still don't know they're going to win, but the point of the race at which it appears sure seems to happen earlier for them than for their "normal" opponents. And they do it so often and so compellingly that it plays a longer-lasting trick on your mind—your nebulous idea of what's to come gets moulded into something with shape and solidity. This new-found certainty ought to deaden the whole experience, but it doesn't. A sprint happens too quickly for you to be able to ponder why it's not as boring as a football game might be if it were dominated by a team of similar superiority. (Plus, remember, your brain is going wheeeeeeeeeee...) Besides which, your imagination is still anchored by the uncertainty. You know that victory, especially this kind of super-victory, is dependent on so many things which have to align just so. But these guys give the impression of being able to subvert that contingency, to circumvent the factors that constantly work against somebody trying to do the extraordinary. It's not that it's effortless to them—they're just operating at a higher level of consciousness, or exploiting Einsteinian relativity, or something else that gives you a pain in the head just thinking about thinking about it. Instead of robbing the contest of the joy of surprise, they make certainty glorious. So you get the best of both worlds: you can lose yourself in the not-knowing, yet take your bearings from that massive, burning meteor that gets bigger and bigger in the sky until it...

Until it what? There has been the odd flash of frailty in Cavendish's sprinting ability, but even then (for example, when Andre Greipel beat him to a stage win in last year's Tour de France) they read like blips. The aforementioned win in this year's Stage 18 came after a winless two and a half weeks (he had won stage 2) in which he had to devote himself to Bradley Wiggins' successful yellow jersey quest; and his British colleagues were unable to get him into a sprint finish in the Olympic road race on Saturday, despite an honourable effort. But there's no real sign that his power is diminished. Anyway, if and when he does begin to decline, and he only wins most of the sprints he contests, you get the feeling it'll be a soft landing for both him and the spectator. Road cycling has a way of keeping everyone involved grounded. It's a hard, grimy, unforgiving pursuit. To get to the sprint, you have to ride for the preceding six hours; to get to the last lap in Paris, you have to go through three weeks of hell. To know anything about cycling is to empathise with the riders and their often brutal lot. Cavendish may be highly strung at times, but the worst that's likely to happen is that he gets a bit tetchy at some journalists and that we're left with some priceless memories.

With Bolt, it might be different. The spell that envelops him is more potent than that which surrounds Cavendish. His manipulation of certainty has turned him into an untouchable, mythical being, an aura which has only become stronger since his astonishing performances in the 2009 World Championships, until it's become the status quo. He's like a mountain that suddenly appeared in the landscape four years ago yet seems to have been there forever. But what happens when the spell is broken? Has it already been broken? His false start in last year's world 100m final was unfortunate (or dumb), but it allowed his compatriot Yohan Blake to take gold. Last September, Blake ran 19.26 for the 200m, just seven hundredths short of Bolt's world record. This year, Blake beat Bolt to gold in both the 100m and 200m at the Jamaican championships. Bolt's whole aura has depended on his being an exception to the exception; now, he might have a worthy rival. It's a welcome development, like when Rafael Nadal came along and prevented men's tennis from getting to the point where Roger Federer walked onto Wimbledon's Centre Court carrying a sceptre. A haunted Bolt at a major championship is a new thing altogether. We might see just how spectacular the slaying of a god can be. Or we might see Bolt win in a gritty, undergod (that was a typo for "underdog", but hey, go with what works) kind of way, bringing out a hitherto unseen side of him. Or he might win both titles easily, casually throwing in a couple of world records along the way, while running in one shoe. But for now, there's uncertainty, and I can feel the ground beneath me rumble.

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The only thing I'm certain of is that Maurice Greene is and forever will be the fastest man alive, right after Michael Johnson.