Philosopher Peter Sloterdijk on the Tour de France: 'The Riders are Just Regular Employees'

Philosopher and amateur cyclist Peter Sloterdijk talks about the the end of true heroism in professional cycling, the profanity of doping, and the destructive power of Danish nihilism.

The pack passes through wheat fields during the fifth stage of the 2008 Tour de France: "The feat these men perform is completely beyond the grasp of ordinary mortals."
AP

The pack passes through wheat fields during the fifth stage of the 2008 Tour de France: "The feat these men perform is completely beyond the grasp of ordinary mortals."

SPIEGEL: Mr. Sloterdijk, two years ago you scaled Mont Ventoux, a 1,900-meter (6,232-foot) peak and one of the mythical mountains of the Tour de France, by bicycle. Why?

Sloterdijk: Perhaps to prove that men around the age of 60 aren't quite ready for the scrap heap. And I had an acute need to prove something. We are equipped with an intuitive picture of our entire lives, and despite the hereditary carelessness that sometimes helps us to ignore the passage of time, there are milestones at which we can get a sense of our imminent decline. Turning 60 is one of those milestones.

SPIEGEL: And were you doped?

Sloterdijk: Not in the least. My Dutch friend and I took so much time that the athletic value of the endeavor was not overly high. At any rate, it was much lower than it is with athletes, who are constantly pushing themselves to the limit and never get off their bikes as they climb the peak.

SPIEGEL: How long did it take you?

Sloterdijk: About two-and-a-half hours. It's important to note that Mont Ventoux has a bizarrely hostile aura. When you've reached the vegetation line, you're suddenly in a lunar landscape. Of course, professional cyclists don't notice much of that, because they're blinded by exertion. We amateurs were so slow on the last ascent that we constantly felt this dead zone-like atmosphere in the summit zone. And when you pass the memorial for poor (Tom) Simpson, who died there in 1967, shortly before reaching the summit, you become quite discouraged and spend a few seconds questioning the point of your endeavor.

SPIEGEL: Why did cycling become your sport?

Sloterdijk: Rather by coincidence. I used to be more of a runner, but over time I realized that my joints didn't like it. Meanwhile word has gotten around about my preference for cycling, so much so that colleagues even gave me a yellow jersey for my birthday.

SPIEGEL: How much riding do you do?

Sloterdijk: I managed a couple of thousand kilometers a summer. For me, cycling represents a return to the primal man of the savannahs, who during a hunt spends the entire day running, and is constantly high in the process.

SPIEGEL: On Mont Ventoux, do you get a sense of what a professional cyclist goes through to scale such a peak?

Sloterdijk: More than a sense: You realize that the feat these men perform is completely beyond the grasp of ordinary mortals. It's almost like studying theology. You need to attain the first degree of initiation to understand that you don't understand anything. The wittiest comments ever written about the Tour were by the young Roland Barthes, and it's no accident that he developed a real theology of cycling. In his essay about the epic known as the Tour de France, there is a passage in which he describes Mont Ventoux as one would describe an evil deity, one that demands sacrifice. Barthes equates the heroes of cycling with Homer's warriors in the Iliad. As far as he is concerned, the original duel, between Hector and Achilles, is repeated among the riders on the mountain. Anyone can fight on flat stretches, but those who remain capable of fighting a duel on the worst of mountains already deserves to be called Hector or Achilles.

SPIEGEL: Barthes mentions doping already in that 1957 essay.

Sloterdijk: Doping was inexcusable in his eyes, because it was tantamount to profanity. Barthes took pleasure in the idea that the strength a cyclist needs to master the most difficult segments is more than the strength that comes from within.

SPIEGEL: Instead, it comes from the gods?

Sloterdijk: Something along those lines, yes. A numinous leap apparently takes place. The last time we saw this was in 2003, on the Pyrenees stage after Luz Ardiden, when Lance Armstrong's handlebar was caught in a spectator's plastic bag during an ascent, causing him to crash, 11 kilometers (7 miles) ahead of the destination. What happened then was what Barthes called the "jump": a sudden burst of energy that enabled Armstrong to press on with the fury of Achilles. It drove him to the summit and past every other rider along the way.

SPIEGEL: Maybe Armstrong was doped?

Sloterdijk: Like everyone else. But it didn't play much of a role in that case. The jump was authentic. By the way, it isn't difficult to understand why Barthes considered doping a sacrilege. For him, it was as if someone were stealing God's exclusive right to shine. In last year's Tour de France, we experienced the gruesome truth that ultimately proved Barthes right. The veil was lifted, and instead of fighters, all you saw were cycling proletarians working at a shady job. Now the poetry is gone, the sublime has been steamrolled. The riders are just regular employees. They no longer live in an aura of brilliance. Instead, they've become nothing but specialists in sprinting, cruising or climbing. Even worse is the vulgarity with which a former Tour de France winner like Bjarne Riis commented on revelations that he was a doper: "The yellow jersey is in a cardboard box in my garage. You can pick it up."

SPIEGEL: That's painful to you?

Sloterdijk: That sort of thing should never have been said. It's pure Danish nihilism. It's the way people talk when they've reached the ultimate in bad behavior. This great cyclist of the past was a Nietzschean in the mountains, a man in the process of overcoming gravity and becoming a superman. Now this pseudo-superman is behaving as if he were the last man on earth, burping into every microphone. Even the symbol of his greatest success means less than nothing to him. It turns out that this higher dimension never existed for him. There was no sense of honor, no symbolic excess, no brilliance, no tension from above. The jersey was nothing but a meaningless rag. If you pull down the sport's dimension of honor, and its symbols, everything ends. Hearing such a filthy remark from the mouth of a rider who was once at the very top is an appalling experience.

SPIEGEL: You believed that you were watching Hector and Achilles, supported by the gods, but in truth it was Bjarne Riis and Jan Ullrich, probably with EPO in their blood. Are you disappointed?

Sloterdijk: Well, not really. Because I cycle a little myself, I know that it's probably impossible for a rider to produce an average of 280 watts of power for six hours during a mountain leg, sometimes even 450 watts or more on the difficult ascents. Purely from a physiological perspective, it's impossible without chemical help. Those who rule it out must ultimately rule out the idea of winning as such.

SPIEGEL: Should doping be legalized?

Sloterdijk: It would be plausible and yet completely impossible. As with any significant dilemma, you have a choice between two possibilities. The situation in cycling today, and in the high-performance world of sports in general, is essentially reminiscent of the way early Christians spoiled the Romans' enjoyment of gruesome games. It seems to me that it's necessary to think in terms of such broad analogies: The Christians' resistance to the Roman games lasted for several centuries, but they ultimately prevailed, and the games disappeared. Today it is not Christianity that is assaulting the games, but the religion of health and its priesthood of doctors. But the effect is the same. Germany is now at the center of the new reaction to the games. It is a country where doping is now outlawed and where all athletes must become hygienic Protestants.

SPIEGEL: In Italy and Spain, they have a low opinion of Germany's anti-doping campaign.

Sloterdijk: The Catholic tradition of cheerful self-destruction is part of the popular culture there. The Italians simply cannot believe that Protestant barbarians up in the North are running rampant once again. They are seriously convinced that we have gone crazy. But Italians and Spaniards are members of a culture in which the separation of appearances from the self is part of popular metaphysics. The Germans, especially Protestants, want to bring words and reality back into alignment. I believe that we are the only nation in the world where people believe in an honest new beginning. We remain unpredictable. We became democratic in 1945, and doping-free in 2007.

SPIEGEL: A new beginning isn't possible?

Sloterdijk: No, in fact we can expect an interminable continuation of the malaise, leading to the gradual ruin of the concept of sports overall. In the middle of the worldwide emphasis on the body, everyone senses that something is coming to an end. Records have advanced to within reach of physiological limits in almost all disciplines. The Olympic Games in Beijing will feature the biggest lineup of doped athletes since the first human being threw a rock. But suspicion eats up everything, ultimately even our excitement over the victories of our fellow citizens, an excitement that still acts as the key effect behind our interest in sports.

SPIEGEL: The best-looking breasts, in general, are artificial. The strongest sexual performance is fueled by Viagra. Why are we getting so worked up about athletes doing the same thing?

Sloterdijk: There is an obvious reason: The relationship between sports and everyday life is like that between the holy and the mundane. It forms a model world, in which everything we know from the average world is intensified. The same values apply there as anywhere else, but in a more concentrated form. This is why the idea of pure performance is more important there than anywhere else. Fraud is normal in the gray zone of the normal, but in the model world it must be proscribed. This special world, framed by clear rules, is inherently designed as an artificial sphere of pure performance, which gives it a special mission. Our meritocratic society celebrates its contradictions within sports. For this reason it is, if you will, an innately transient zone. Athletes cannot be saints or priest, but they must at least live up to their reputation as heroes, and when they no longer can or want to, they become like everyone else -- and we can put them on welfare.

SPIEGEL: Did the decades of lies in the cycling world make any sense as a means of preserving transcendence?

Sloterdijk: Cycling is also structurally Catholic in this sense: It is incapable of surviving without hypocrisy. A reformation of the Tour de France remains inconceivable, because we would then be sending all kinds of drug-free cyclists onto the road, which would not be in keeping with the nature of the event. The Tour is one of the few myths of the 20th century that was still halfway functional until recently.

SPIEGEL: But German cycling teams are trying to clean up the sport. Is this possible?

Sloterdijk: Rolf Aldag said something interesting last year: This time they should award the medals to the last three. This reflects a rather deep insight into the moral situation within the Tour. But if the last to finish are to be the winners, we are no longer engaged in sports, but in charity. Turning failures into victories is and remains a culturally unlikely operation. In Italy, they compare the Germans' efforts with a Maoist reeducation camp attended by repentant riders.

SPIEGEL: Germans were long under the illusion that it was the others, the Russians, the East Germans and the Americans, who were the bad guys when it came to doping.

Sloterdijk: The chemicalization of society is a global phenomenon. Most important, it has taken hold within the broad center. The book "No Limit" by Ines Geipel, a former East German world record holder in the sprint relay, is worth reading. It shows how things that will happen next month in Beijing are part of a worldwide trend. Several years ago, my trainer told me that you can hardly make it past the regional level in any sport without doping, and everyone knows this. Only professional hypocrites like Rudolf Scharping had to pretend as if their world had fallen apart when Jan Ullrich got caught. What nonsense! Nevertheless, it has long been clear to everyone that a professional athlete has a second profession, namely that of someone pretending to be a role model. Professionalization doesn't stop at lying. Those who are incapable of being hypocrites can't be professional cyclists.

SPIEGEL: Could it be that doped athletes despise us ordinary mortals, because we surrender to our limited nature, accepting the limits of our bodies and the limits of creation, while they have recognized how to exceed them?

Sloterdijk: Excellent question. Do those who are in top physical shape truly despise ordinary people? There are many signs that they do. Whenever an extremely fit person walks around among ordinary bunglers, we notice a gaping, uncomfortable discrepancy. That's why athletes add a second hypocrisy to their claims that they have never doped: They do everything in their power to pretend that they are perfectly normal people. Their second supplementary sport is the simulation of normalcy. It was also once part of the repertoire of communist intellectuals.

SPIEGEL: Are riders like Jörg Jaksche, who admit to everything, capable of being heroes?

Sloterdijk: He is one of those who have switched to the Protestant camp -- and the new Protestants are still an unwelcome minority. We will still have two sides to sports in the next 100 years: first the competition itself and then the discovery of the cheaters. As a result, we are offered two programs at once. This is another reason why the situation of the anti-doping party is reminiscent of that of Christians in the Roman arena. They are still being fed to the lions, to the amusement of the audience, but an arm with a raised index finger is already hanging from the best lion's mouth, and the message is unpleasant: If you're watching this sort of thing, then you are morally finished!

SPIEGEL: There are amateur cyclists who take paracetamol or Voltaren, even EPO, before heading out for a ride. Do you?

Sloterdijk: I wouldn't have any inhibitions, in principle, but I depend upon inner cycles. The human body is a work of art in endocrinology. All you have to do is stimulate it correctly and it will thank you with a symphony of internal drugs.

SPIEGEL: Do you wear the yellow jersey that colleagues gave you for your birthday?

Sloterdijk: Yes, and I like wearing it. First of all, it more or less fits me, and second, it makes you feel as though you were a living alarm signal riding through the countryside.

SPIEGEL: Besides, it takes you a little closer to the gods, right?

Sloterdijk: Well, the magic goes away pretty quickly. Every other rider out there wears yellow.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Sloterdijk, thank you for this interview.

The interview was conducted by Lothar Gorris and Dirk Kurbjuweit

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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