Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Unpopular Opinion

Well, I've held off writing about the topic of this month's poll (see upper portion of right-hand column) for too long. There are reasons I've been hesitating. Mainly, I don't want to lose any readers.

I appreciate all those who took part. I'm glad to know you guys are optimistic about Lance Armstrong's return to the upper reaches of the sport.

Ahem. I was the one negative vote.

I'm somewhat loath to admit this now, after the rest of you voted in favor. So, let me try to explain myself. I tried this once before, but trashed the draft of the post before it ever saw daylight. It was full of meanderings and justifications. I also don't want to sound like a curmudgeon.

So, I warmly welcome dissenting opinions in your comments on this post. Okay? Okay. Here we go.

Simply put, I feel two ways about Armstrong. On the positive side, there is no doubt about a few important facts:

1) In his Tour de France years, he did for the sport what Babe Ruth did for baseball, or, to choose a more recent and perhaps more apt example, Michael Jordan for basketball. Today, the most casual sports fan or newspaper reader knows what the Tour de France is. When neighbors see me in my kit headed out for a ride, they joke about me being (or maybe trying to be) the local Armstrong. Greg Lemond achieved something like this, but let's be honest; Armstrong is much more famous than Lemond was.

2) Armstrong is undeniably one of the most talented cyclists of his generation -- possibly the most talented. I don't need to recap his accomplishments here; if you're reading this blog, you know. I have one word which more or less makes the point: Seven.

3) He's done almost as much for the cause of cancer as he has for cycling. Laudable and very helpful to people with real problems. (At least I assume it is -- I don't know much about the Lance Armstrong Foundation's inner workings.)

4) His ferocity of focus and desire can be very inspirational. His victory over cancer, and subsequent rise to glory, were extremely impressive, and to a great degree, attributable to that ferocity.

Okay. Those are some very, very strong points. Now, here's the stuff I don't like. Let me start by saying that every one of these is far more a matter of opinion than any of the points listed above. Also, I don't know the man personally, and I might feel differently if I did. This is simply my take:

1) He's got an ego the size of Everest. He is supremely self-involved. Everything he does smacks of self-promotion. Sadly, that extends to his charity, too. (For example, it allows him to make one of the most publicized comebacks in sports history while wearing a jersey bearing, in oversize letters, the name of his own charity -- not that of his team. The jersey, not coincidentally, incorporates his own name: Livestrong. Every photo I've seen of him riding with the team in the last few months has featured that jersey. Yet, he can't be criticized for this, because he's "doing it all for the cancer victims." Except when he says that he is in it to win the races. He's got it wired every which way. This is but one of many, many examples.)

2) He's an outstanding example of the lamentable American fixation on winning. He has an "All or nothing" attitude that is at the heart of a lot of serious dysfunction (both personal and global) in our society. You're either a hero... or a zero. You either give every ounce of energy and moment of your time to a goal, or you might as well quit now. You're either my unwavering ally, or my mortal enemy. We mental health professionals spend our time helping people work their way out of these these polarizing and damaging ways of thinking. (Please note that I am not saying that Armstrong has a mental health problem; I'm saying his attitude, held up as an wonderful example to us all, can be damaging.)

So, in my view, Armstrong is a dynamo that generates lots of good, and lots of bad. I guess where you come out on him just depends which one you give more weight to. I do think his return will re-inject some positive interest into road racing, which could use all it can get.

That's just not enough.

I confess that I'm very demanding of my heroes. I work with children and teens for a living, the everyday variety who are struggling under poor, neglectful parents, insufficient schools, and the wearying effects of trying to decide who they will become in a society that gives them but a few unappetizing choices. If someone's going to go gliding like an Adonis through the glossy TV ads they unconsciously soak up every day, it damn well better be someone who is worth emulating in every way.

I, too, need role models who get me through the daily drag with a spark of hope, of courage, of fire in the belly. Not people I can use like an action figure toy, to fantasize ruling my little corner of the world. Folks who do what I love to do, but in a stunning, inspiring way. And, who manage to successfully navigate the difficult, swampy business we call life and maintain their integrity, and their kindness.

So that's a lot, right? They have to be more than just gifted and fierce. They have to be transparently good people, from the inside out.

They're out there. (In fact, I met one of them.) There are lots of them -- many more, in fact, than the bigshots. Most of them aren't as well known, because, usually, you can't be that good a person and rise all the way to the top of a field in which thousands are trying to cut you down. But it's okay with me that my heroes are number three, or 27, in the world. They're still incredibly talented and a joy to watch when they do their thing -- and when they stop, and talk to the media, you can tell: They prefer to win, but really, they're doing this because it embodies goodness for them. Not because of the demons snapping at their heels, not for the joy of being the best, not to prove they are better than someone else.

May I be blessed with a fraction of that grace in any part of my life. And you, too, if that's what you want.

As for Armstrong, I admire his talent. And I wish him peace. It looks to me like he needs it.


No One Line said...

Nice. I like your point about Armstrong's mentality about winning, which reminds me a bit too much about manifest destiny - the point of existence is to conquer the land and its inhabitants all the way to the coast!

One of the reasons why I'm looking forward to Armstrong racing is because it's such a circus, because of his ego (-#1 on your list) and because of his palmares (+#2). And cycling in the last few years has been such a circus anyway, considering the doping DQs in last year's tour. And polarizing figures are excellent and I tend to take a view that embraces controversy rather than takes a side on it. That lines up with your +#1 on your list, increasing interest in the sport.

I'm in a band and when we record, there are two dominant attitudes. One person very much wants what we capture and playback to sound like what he wants it to sound like in his head. I'm content to implement a couple interesting techniques, play my lines as well as I can, and see how it comes together - the final product will be interesting to me because of the process, not because of my preconceived notions.

I guess that's how I feel about Armstrong. Like a Jackson Pollack painting. There are some fun colors going down on the canvas. Wonder what the finished product will be like...

Big, fat snowflakes falling in Brooklyn this morning, and I've got to get on my workbike and hustle some money in this weather.


Velosopher said...

Terrific thoughts, NOL!

I take your points without any disagreement. In fact, I honestly wish I could feel the way you do about the whole thing -- it would be a lot more fun!

I, too, spent decades in bands, so I really hear you on the "watch the process unfold" thing.

I'll give it a go, but there are some things that just get to me, y'know? (Doesn't help that I'm a Leipheimer fan, and he'll be racing in LA's long penumbra this year, once again edged out of the spotlight.) said...

AH! Divulging that you're a Levi fan explains a little! I too - despite my vote (which I did since I'm of the mind that any Lance is good exposure for cycling) - feel bad for the Lieutenants that gave the best years of their lives - literally - in service to Lance.

And I couldn't agree with you more re the definition of a hero. I especially liked this quote (from the old post you linked):

"When I think about it, I’ve only ever been cold-shouldered by local, mid-level athletes. My crude level of achievement scares them, because they haven’t put enough distance between me and where they are today. So, they speak only to their fellow, almost-accomplished buddies. They go about carefully boosting each other’s egos."

Sounds WAYYYYY too familiar to the local cycling scene. ugh!

Velosopher said...

SoC, I was just reading on BikeForums today more confirmation of that "moderately talented clique" thing. Someone on the racing sub-forum was saying that Cat 4 is generally filled with better-rounded folks; once you get to Cat 3, there's a higher proportion of [jerks]. Doesn't that just fit that same dynamic to a "T"?

Even though I know it comes from insecurity on their part, I still get surprised by it.

Worse yet, I know that *I* sometimes am guilty of focusing more on those above me who will take me in, than on those below me who want in. Really, it goes straight back to junior high school. I try hard to stretch in both directions when I remember to.

Anonymous said...

Finally getting around to reading your old posts. (Slow day at work.) I'm enjoying them all tremendously, and am thankful that I'm not the only one who demands more from heroes, especially the spoiled athletes.

It's a bit too early to echo the profound thoughts of No One Line and our Web friend, Suitcase, but kudos on this post. Those things need to be pointed out.

Velosopher said...

Thanks for your positive feedback, MellowVelo! Someone who reads closely and then really appreciates makes all the work doubly rewarding. I'm enjoying keeping up with your posts, too.