Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Preacher and the Pinch...

By now most everyone has been made aware of Peter Sagan's indiscrete handling of a podium girl this past weekend. A damning photograph quickly circulated the internet, which resulted in a wide range of condemnations and questions. It has presented us (the racing community) with an opportunity to ask ourselves what we want the sport of cycling to be. I frequently use the word opportunity in posts when I write about cycling - opportunity to explore, opportunity to improve our health, opportunity to recreate communities in a more humanistic way, etc. For me it sums up in a single word what bicycling in general provides, and should continue to provide.


At the old Claremont Cyclist blog it did a short post about an illustration I had come across, dating to the late 1800s, called "Scorcher and the Preacher." I think we can all agree that this image reflects a certain racial mindset, more prevalent at the time, that would be considered inappropriate now; it is reflective of an attitude best confined to the historical past. The fact that the scene is built around a bicycle race is incidental. Were attitudes like this prevalent in cycling at the time? I am sure they were, but they were not unique to cycling;  they existed as indicative of sentiment held by society in general.


So, what do we make of Peter Sagan's rear-pinching, podium faux-pas at Sunday's Ronde van Vlaanderen? Was it youthful exuberance? Was it getting caught up in the celebratory moment? Yes, I imagine it was on both counts. Was is also highly inappropriate, not to mention unprofessional? Yes again - on both counts. The following day Sagan made a public apology for his action via Facebook. Whether you believe this was heartfelt, or damage control is up to you. The pinch is not something that can just be shrugged off; were to happen in the office down the hall, it would be cause for immediate disciplinary action, or even result in a lawsuit. That it happened on a public stage might make it even more serious than if it happened in the relative privacy of an office. Privacy, of course, always carries the threat of coercion. The public nature of Sagan's action could bespeak arrogance or indifference; everyone can see, so what?  Because it is done in front of the world, it implies a thought process that does not see anything wrong with the action. Honestly though, I don't believe Sagan thought that, in fact, I don't believe he thought at all. He acted without thinking, a characteristic we typically apply to youth.

I would hope that Sagan, and the people closest to him, will recognize this as an opportunity, a learning experience. Learn to think before you act, or, some actions are best left undone, for instance. But mostly I would hope it would lead to a consideration of what is appropriate behavior, and what is not.

Sexism in sport is something that national and international organizing bodies, as well as society, have had to grapple with for some time, and it appears as though, like racism or any other form of group hatred, will only slowly disappear. Change will only come slowly because it remains a part of the wider society. We should expect professional football players to not harass women reporters with rude comments and locker room humor. We should expect professional cyclists to keep their hands to themselves. But we should also expect these things from the office manager, or the company sergeant. The vast majority of people recognize that these things are wrong, the Sagan pinch will not change that. What it will do is bring discussions of such attitudes, at least momentarily, to the forefront. 

Peter Sagan, and cycling's authorities, have been presented with an opportunity to lead by example. Be it sexism, or another issue that has long plagued cycling - equal opportunity, the sport, which is never shy of stating it's commitment to breaking from a tainted past, should expand beyond this one-dimensional outlook and become more completely progressive. Irregardless of some notably flamboyant personalities in the peloton over the years, I am certainly not attempting to portray this as some kind of integrity problem within cycling. But it does present cycling with the chance to address an issue of societal concern. And that is a worthwhile use of an opportunity.

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