Michael Hutchinson: Marxism and the UCI

Karl Marx had a theory that history repeated itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Like quite a lot of what Karl Marx said, the succinct way he phrased this has tended to blind people to the fact that it’s not really true. (The history of most of the 20th Century was based on a theory of Marx’s that was elegant, but ignored the blindingly obvious fact that most people aren’t very nice.)

However, I’m delighted to mark a near miss for Marx. The dog’s breakfast that the international governing body for swimming, FINA, has been making of things recently was so reminiscent of the UCI in the mid 1990s that I almost laughed. The only reason I didn’t was that it’s not the kind of thing old Karl would have liked.

It’s a near miss, because here history has indeed repeated itself, the first time as farce, and the second time as farce too.

Let us recap. In the mid 1990s, the UCI found itself under siege from all sides by the genius of Graeme Obree. Far be it from me to suggest the UCI panicked, but from a distance, it looked a bit like that. They spent several years frantically shuffling rules – not always, or even often, giving the impression that they were entirely on top of the situation.

The final upshot was the first iteration of the bike rules that have blossomed into their current exquisite flower of incomprehensibility. The UCI rules are now so famously complex that a few weeks ago I found myself on the phone to a journalist from the Mail on Sunday, of all publications, attempting to explain them. I failed.

And the daftest thing of all was the hour record. Not once, but twice they banned riding positions from use after they’d been used to set records. The first time Miguel Indurain (whatever happened to him?) saved the officials by breaking Obree’s ‘tuck’ position record, using a conventional tribar position.

The second time, Chris Boardman used Obree’s ‘superman’ position to set an hour record that was unbelievable. This time, when the UCI banned the position, and for good measure, the aerobike that Boardman used, the collective reaction of the cycling world was that Boardman’s record was now so far out of reach that anyone who tried to get to it using the new, slower, rules was just going to look silly. No one has attempted it since.

What they ought to have done was, of course, rescind the record. I appreciate that this would have been monumentally unpopular. But you can’t really change the rules to make the most prestigious record in cycling effectively unbreakable.

It’s flattering for cycling that FINA, faced with a new generation of plastic swimsuits, followed the UCI’s lead. They banned them. They unbanned them, under pressure from the manufacturers. Then, having seen them used to set a whole slew of records, they’ve banned them again, but not until next year.

And, keen to measure up to the high standards prevailing in this arena, they’ve specified that suits must be ‘textile’ in nature, without offering any definition of what the hell this might mean, except to say that they know what it means, but they’re not telling anyone because it might cause confusion.

And of course, the records stay put.

Truly, UCI, your crown is under threat.