There is often a tendency for people to direct their energies towards the most visible issues, rather than the ones that stand to cause the greatest impact. People also have a tendency towards vilifying easy targets and thereby signalling their own piety to whatever audience they might have.
A recent example is the virulence of the criticism thrown at the professional triathlete, Joe Skipper, for his 325 kilometre and 9-and-a-half-hour ride on March 27. For context, the UK went into lockdown on March 23 and, although only one form of outdoor exercise is permitted per day, no time limit was applied—this ride was within the letter of the law.
However, there were many who felt it was not following the spirit of the law. One of the plethora of commenters on twitter captured the widely held sentiment, saying: “Staying home reduces the risk of an accident putting more pressure on the NHS, you’re not in a special category to everyone else.” Such was the indignation that the story even made national news, appearing on the BBC News website.
It was a perfect storm. The ride was very visible, although initially only posted on Strava (an exercise based social media platform), it was screenshotted and posted on Facebook and Twitter. It was also an action which very few could—or would want to—replicate, meaning a very large number of people who could jump in on the criticism and pat themselves on the back for not cycling 201 miles.
This scale of the backlash is only matched by its disproportionality. That Joe Skipper went for this ride is not a big issue: He was mechanically prepared and it was well within his fitness capabilities as the British record for long-distance triathlon, which consists of a 3.9km swim, a 180km bike ride, finished by a marathon—that’s a 42km run. As a professional, it is his job to train and this ride was not likely to result in any accidents or other misfortunes.
The energies of the critics could have been a lot better directed at issues that stand to cause a greater problem.
Such as the people who, whilst not exercising previously, have for some reason decided that the nationwide lockdown marks the perfect time to start. These people will be ill-prepared. Whether it is not having the correct spares or mechanical know-how to fix a problem on a long-neglected bike 20 miles from home, or whether it is going out walking on the moors in inappropriate clothing and without a proper map. Or even simply going for a local run and experiencing extreme exhaustion or causing a repetitive strain injury due to not having done those motions since PE in secondary school.
But these people are not visible, they are not posting their activities on social media and presenting an easy target for criticism. Or if they are, their profile is low enough that no one cares enough to direct their ire at them. Or the distances seem so small that they don’t have the same impact as Joe Skipper’s 325km ride, even if the likelihood of an accident is far greater.
Perhaps an even better outlet for these critics’ energies would have been calling for an emergency lowering of the nation’s speed limits, as recommended by the British Medical Journal. Every year there are around 35,000 no-fatal admissions to hospital in England alone. Lowering speed limits from 40kph to 30kph is associated with a reduction of around a third in pedestrian-motor vehicle collisions and a two third reduction of major and fatal injuries. This would be of significant help to the NHS, whereas trying to hound a triathlete off the roads would not.
But this does not give an easy target to vilify. There are too many people who (to be generous) drive right at the speed limit. They can’t jump on this issue and chastise the people who are driving at those speeds to highlight their own moral superiority, as they are part of the problem. Then comes the matter of visibility again, there is no obvious target at which to focus their criticism, even for number plates, people are largely anonymous in their cars.
This is why Joe Skipper was the subject of a social media storm. And why issues that have a far greater impact than training of one professional triathlete do not attract the same attention.