Paul Andersen: Fair Game
September 3, 2012
Lance Armstrong is an American idol, and to many people, it no longer matters how he got there or why. Regardless of the taint from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Lance stands among a pantheon of super-heroes who reign god-like in the prevailing sports culture of the U.S.
The veneration of sports celebrities is so peaked that ethical behavior is often pushed low on the scale of virtues. These heroes are not questioned as to motive or means. They answer a psychological need for a culture that lives vicariously through the extremes of competition.
Lance is a supercharged competitor who exhibits a rare addiction. Hold an athletic contest with an aerobic challenge, and he’ll be at the starting line. Few of us have that insatiable drive.
I can speak to a far different competitive mood when I first rode a mountain bike in Crested Butte in the late ’70s. There were often drugs involved, but these weren’t performance enhancing unless the desired performance was uproarious laughter and a mellow vibe.
Our competition was casual, not commercial. We rode hard as a friendly challenge to one another. Our “events” were not filmed or photographed but were recorded in our hearts as some of the most memorable experiences we shared. There were no endorsements, no sponsorships, just good-natured camaraderie.
For professional athletes like Lance, competition is formalized and hierarchical. It begins with allegiance to the team, the coaches and the trainers. In this structured atmosphere, one parlays performance and discipline into acclaim. Only the very top athletes rise beyond to become the property of media and corporate sponsors.
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At some point, the accomplished athlete chooses between two competing ideals – the Platonic and the Machiavellian. The Platonic athlete strives to be the best as an expression of the good, the true and the beautiful. The Machiavellian athlete focuses on the ends of money, fame and power.
The Olympics originally selected athletes to represent a particular people and place and to perform for that honor alone. Today’s Olympics come with a heavy overlay of commercialism. Michael Phelps, the Wheaties poster boy, washes his hair with Head ‘n Shoulders because it makes him faster in the water. A comely young beach volleyball player salivates over a bowl of Frosted Flakes before facing the rigors of the sandlot.
Capitalism has raised competition to a national religion, and the sporting world is infused with that same mentality. Going for the gold has literal implications. Amassing wealth through victories on the playing fields is a metaphor for supremacy on the killing fields fought over by four-star athletes at the Pentagon in the ultimate competition – war.
Casual competition among friends is infused with good will because no one has an unfair advantage or would knowingly take one. The science of blood doping and the intrigues of hiding it debase the pure love of athletics into a fraud in which nothing is ennobling.
Dope testing questions the integrity of athletes who cannot be trusted to compete fairly. How is the public supposed to honor the word of a famous athlete when the ruling bodies won’t? How jaded has the sporting world become when one of its top performers is guilty until proven innocent? How pure are sports when they are part of an entertainment industry that sells performance over all else?
Lance, despite a besmirched record, is cheered in Aspen. So celebrated are his heroic deeds by those who bask in the aura of his accomplishments that nothing can diminish the imagery of him in the throes of competition. So infectious is his celebrity that his persona is inviolate.
Lance’s contest with USADA is seen as yet another of his heroic battles, this one against an evil entity that would strip him of the acclaim with which his public has become emotionally invested. Just as Lance is celebrated for fighting off cancer, so he is cheered for fighting off the inquiries of a “witch hunt.”
Competition remains a natural human condition that pits us one against another in sports, business and politics. At best, it is for the pure joy of performance. At worst, competition violates integrity. When the rare individual combines performance with integrity, the true hero is revealed.