The Cult of Success: Cycling & The Church


Over the last couple of years I’ve been following with interest the difficulties of British Cycling and Team Sky. Well, with more than interest. With, too, a sense of uncomfortable familiarity from a different facet of life – the church. But first, the important business of cycling…

I think anyone who remotely loves cycling will be aware of its difficult relationship with, well, let’s call it ‘cheating’. Of course, it’s a little more complex than that, but whether it’s amphetamines, EPO or needle-injected vitamins, cycling’s governing body the UCI has seen fit to outlaw behaviour that’s judged undesirable, dangerous, or immoral in the context of sport. When you look back over the historical heroics, the epics, the blood, sweat and gears of the sport of cycling, especially the Grand Tours, it’s very difficult to disentangle the grime, the sordid truth of doping, from these wonderful stories. The stories become almost mythic, and we want to believe the almost super-human achievements. And the truth is too uncomfortable to acknowledge because it spoils and sullies the story, and destroys all we’ve hoped in.

The rise of ‘clean’ teams has to be welcomed by every cycling fan. I recently read David Millar’s autobiographical Ride of My Life, including his account of the catharsis of telling the truth about his own doping, in a world that didn’t really want to hear it (especially in the aftermath of the Festina affair). Millar’s part in establishing Garmin-Slipstream as a clean, ethical racing team is a wonderful part of his own story of redemption. Of course, since then, cycling fans have been left disbelieving and demoralised by the exposé of Lance Armstrong’s ‘clean’ team.

I watched the excellent film The Program a few months ago. Armstrong told such a complex, forceful story that no-one dared question it. Armstrong was a charismatic hero, who’d survived cancer, and he wove this part of his experience into a facade that was virtually impossible to puncture. The whole of cycling, including the UCI, desperately wanted to believe a story of redemption, a story of ‘clean’ heroism. Yet this desperation for redemption, this desperation for a good and heroic story of success, enabled Armstrong to continue his bullying, and his unbelievably cynical and systematic program of doping, across the whole of the core of the US Postal team. The story is absolutely fascinating.

And now, of course, we have British Cycling and Team Sky. British Cycling has been the focus of UK Sport’s relentless search for Olympic medal success. But it’s gradually becoming clear that everyone was so keen to believe the story of success that the story itself became a facade, and behind it lay a culture of bullying, fear, and sexism. The close links with Team Sky, another self-proclaimed ‘clean team’, couples all of this with doubts about the integrity of the whole set-up, with stories of needle-injection, systematic use of steroids, unexplained jiffy bags and lost laptops muddying (conveniently) the waters. Chris Froome’s failed salbutamol test is only the latest in a line of half-revelations.

For a long time, this was all hidden behind the aura projected by Team Sky’s big-budget propaganda (it’s Murdoch money, I’m sure you know). It’s the aura of success, so powerfully hopeful and heroic. Like the UK Olympic story, Brits desperately wanted to believe it – from the top down – and so no-one scrutinised the set-up. In fact, the Guardian has reported that, when the cracks started appearing, UK Sport told the governance body to ‘go easy’ on British Cycling, because “that’s where the medals come from.”  And something ugly, dis-spiriting, and hypocritical was allowed to grow behind the facade. Just as with Armstrong, those with doubts either dismissed them or kept them to themselves over a long period of time. After all, there was success. But that’s the problem – the Cult of Success, at any price. Let’s be honest, it’s what’s ruining sport, across the board.

Then you have pro-cyclist Emma Pooley’s comments about fish rotting from the head. All it takes is a certain type of person: an Armstrong, a Brailsford, a Sutton; a driven, probably narcissistic leader who has bought in completely to the Cult of Success. They construct a facade through their charisma, usually with the help of one or two other hard-grafters who back their project, suspend their integrity, and bask in some kind of reflected glory. Add in an ability to consistently, unflinchingly and relentlessly project the narrative of success, and all doubters will doubt themselves, hold their tongues, sit on their hands. Good people will do nothing, because of the very real fear of recriminations – it’s extremely hard to challenge a story that everyone is so desperate to believe.

Bullying, deception, and cynical manipulation prosper behind such a facade of success.   Whether it’s cycling as a sport, desperate for a story of redemption, or UK Sport throwing big money at a story that needs resurrecting – the story of a powerful, successful Britain – the desperate need for hope, for something good, keeps the truth buried in a grave dug for it by hypocrisy and cynicism. And, people get damaged –  pretty badly damaged, if you read Jess Varnish’s story, and the story of Josh Edmondson – by the injustice of it all.

I don’t really have to explain to people in churches that there’s an uncomfortable allegory in all of the above. Christians know that the church isn’t really prospering – in the West it’s a story of decline, of faded glory. And so the church is desperately searching for its own narratives of redemption, of hope, of validity. The siren call of the Cult of Success falls on longing ears. That’s why apparent stories of success in various congregations are writ large, emblazened across social media, eulogised – all with little scrutiny.

Just as in the world of cycling, these stories often hide ugly realities of fish rotting from the head. Doubters sit on their hands, truth-tellers are cold-shouldered, and victims of bullying stay silent. The Big Story continues to grow; the Cult of Success tightens its grip. When someone does speak out to somebody with the authority to act, they’re so often told: “go easy, that’s where the medals come from.”

The fact that churches seek validity through success is desperately sad. It’s usually to do with church leaders personally buying into the Cult of Success, and seeking their own validity through success. And that’s a fundamental denial of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the only narrative of redemption we need, or should be telling. Professional sport in the age of mass-media and big money is fertile ground for the Cult of Success. The church ought to be a different type of soil. But until church leaders reject the Cult of Success nothing will change. Until churches embrace Gospel humility, rather than self-proclaiming their ‘successes’; until churches embrace Gospel honesty rather than engaging in cover-ups to try to protect their ‘reputation’, the show will sadly go on.