Monday, February 4, 2013

Unsportsmanlike


While I once followed sporting events with enthusiasm, like the Super Bowl, underway as I write this (14 hours ahead of New Orleans), I have never been much of a sports fan. To use a politically incorrect adage, I don't have a dog in the fight. I don't even have a dog. Since I can never seem to stay in one city, or indeed in one country, for long enough to grow attached to the place, I have no home team to support.

One of the things I heard from a reporter after the broadcast of the Oprah interview with Lance Armstrong was that Armstrong was the biggest liar in the history of sport. I watched bits of the interview, and I agree with the consensus that it wasn't revelatory enough. But honestly, compared to liars like Albert Speer or family of dictators - the great leader, the dear leader, and the young leader - in North Korea, Armstrong is small potatoes.

Watching Armstrong's try at coming clean made me think of athletes from my childhood whom I considered worth looking up to. For some reason, I saw the faces of baseball players - the haggard faces of Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays at the same age as Armstrong, nearing the end of their careers. We remember athletes of old because they were winners, but also because they showed us the cost of winning. Everyone who watched Mickey Mantle's career had to wonder how much greater he would've been if he hadn't had to contend with so many injuries in his career. And I will never forget seeing Willie Mays after his retirement selling used cars in a TV commercial. Most athletes never seem to make plans or save money for their retirement and find themselves at mid-life, with no other skills and no learning, wondering what to do with the rest of their lives.

It would be easy to argue that Lance Armstrong did nothing wrong. To listen to some people, he did everything right. He was a phenomenal winner. Isn't that the object - the be all and end all - of sport? Of all athletes, I am most dubious of the ones who always seem to win by a mile and whose prowess appears effortless.

Standing in the wings of a ballet performance is unsettling when you watch dancers, poised and elegant onstage, gasping for air on arrival in the wings, bent double in pain or exhaustion. Athletes aren't required to maintain such composure. It's a common sight to see football players hobble off the field with a pronounced limp or breathing from an oxygen mask. Tennis players can often be seen on their backs during the match and have to be treated at court-side.

But other athletes have been known to conceal sometimes serious injuries from their coaches and teammates to prevent them from being benched. Not letting the team or the fans down has driven many athletes to "play through" their injuries and their pain. Playing through his pain wouldn't have helped anyone racing against Lance Armstrong.

I remember when I lost whatever interest I had left in baseball. It was in the middle of the obscene homerun derby between Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire as they raced to break Roger Maris's single season homerun record. (McGwire's distended forearms made him look like Popeye.) Not long afterward, both Sosa and McGwire admitted to steroid use. Bonds, who now holds both the single season and career homerun records, continues to deny that he ever doped. Maris wasn't alive to witness the breaking of his record, but Hank Aaron was, and still is. In 2010, McGwire admitted, "I wish I had never touched steroids. It was foolish and it was a mistake. I truly apologize. Looking back, I wish I had never played during the steroid era." He claimed to have used steroids to recover from injuries. The loud and clear message that these dirty athletes send to the rest of us is, Performance Enhancing Drugs work, and can make you into a superman.

Major League Baseball claims to be on top of the problem of doping now and assures fans that the game is clean. For me, the sport, like cycling, is in tatters. The history of cheating in sports must be as long as the history of sports. As long as there have been competitions to find out who could run the fastest or jump the highest or the farthest, there have been people who used unfair advantages to win. All the talk about sportsmanship has seemed to me like Christian love - a fine idea, but utterly impracticable.

The use of PEDS is merely the latest - and certainly not the most insidious - example. Armstrong, and every other cheater, reminds me of the scene from The Dictator, in which Sasha Baron Cohen, as Admiral General Aladeen, is running on a track, grabbing other runners one by one and pushing them to the ground so he can cross the finish line first. As silly as it is, the scene could stand as a metaphor for sports.

I have always thought it was ridiculous to attribute virtues to athletes merely because of their physical abilities. Just because a basketballer can toss a ball through a hoop with great alacrity and consistency does not make him a better man. (It does, however, make him a great deal wealthier, thanks to a culture in which function and reward are light years apart.) And I emphatically reject the repellent view that sports teaches life-lessons to children. Life is not a struggle in which everyone is an opponent.

Armstrong will probably be obliged to cough up the stacks of cash that were given to him through misguided charities. All of his endorsement earnings are his, fair and square. Anybody dumb enough to look for their heroes among athletes deserves being taken to the cleaners.

(Super Bowl update: I'm not watching.)

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