Tis the season, time for summer fun, family vacations, the Tour de France, and the Olympics – and of course the always topical talk of doping in sports. Gotta love international sport. Where else can one combine lessons in geography, culture and biochemistry! It is interesting, or maybe ironic, but the only athletes to really suffer any professional sanction, criminal convictions or just plain condemnation are those who compete in international sport. Yes, there have been a few NFL and MLB players suspended, but nothing of any significance, and certainly not at the height of their careers. Marion Jones has went to jail, Ben Johnson surrendered his gold, countless cyclist and track athletes have been banned for years, if not life, and keeping with the spirit of the season, Lance is back in the news…again.
What I find ironic in the whole Lance story is that well, to use a phrase, he was just being the classic American. No, not that every American cheats, far from it. However, if there is something to the American Spirit, or American Way, it is to win…always. If there is anything American’s do, it is to take things “to the next level”. American’s push the boundaries, they strive to gain more, to overcome obstacles. They leverage their optimism to go above and beyond the accepted norm. They plan, they analyze, they grind, they take risks and they find a better way.
The country was founded on the idea of more is better. The British had an interesting system of somewhat representative government and a capitalist economy. The colonies took those ideas and ran with them. If a little democracy and freedom was good – more is better – the Revolution was on! The Japanese implement the Kaizen theories in business and manufacturing, America takes the ideas to the next level with Six Sigma, Lean, Just-In-Time and a host of other quality and efficiency programs. America goes absolutely hog-wild when it comes to pushing limits; the old “taking it to the next level” thing. It is just the American way – better, faster, more – win!
And so we comeback to sports and international competition. Lance, for all that he might or might not have done, is a product of his environment – he is and was a reflection of the American Way – good or bad, he is what he is. Cycling was a European sport. Americans came to the game only recently, and when the first group of Americans broke into the sport, they did it as American Pioneers are want to do – they came in loud, rough and hard. Those guys of Team 7-11 were a wild and tough bunch. They won a little, and they intimidated a lot. They were classic Yanks in a Euro show, and it did not go over well with the old guard. Greg LeMond played by the Euro rules and won, but as a quasi Euro on a European team. Now who knows exactly how it all went down, but doping in cycling, and sports in general, exploded in the late 80’s and early 90’s. In cycling specifically, was it because of the American threat to the “old guard” – no one will ever know, but the timing fits. (Note: There is an entire Cold War component to doping in sports, but why bother going down that path)
So there it is, Lance and the new American team see the field on which they are going to compete – drugs are there. If they are going to win, which is the only way an American team knows how to complete, then they have to be smarter. Did this mean they were also doping? Who knows, but they certainly trained smarter, competed smarter, leveraged technology better and just flat-out raced smarter. If they did dope, they certainly doped smarter. Look at the test results – Lance nor any of his teammates were caught when everyone else on other teams were. If nothing else, it is telling.
The American Way is an interesting thing…it is a winning attitude, it is a risk taking attitude. It is a willingness to push boundaries, and a willingness to sacrifice to improve one’s situation. It is certainly not a bad thing – look at the society it has created and the innovations it has spawned. Yes, everyone can point to problems or short comings, but the overall track record of “The Grand Experiment” is amazing. And Lance Armstrong is a product of that environment. He attained amazing results and has done incredible things for himself and others. Did he push the boundaries – absolutely. Did he do some things that are at a minimum “on the edge” – almost certainly. But then again, is not being on the edge just another piece of the American Way?
Not my place, nor frankly my concern, of who is “right or wrong” in this never-ending drama. All I know is that I was entertained watching a guy race a bike. I still do find it entertaining to watch anyone race a bike frankly. Lance made for great fun and conversation, plus lead to a story that has inspired a few folks, not to mention a foundation that has left the world a bit better than it was. Plus yellow bracelets became a fashion trend – that is staggering when you think about it. But above all, Lance has reminded me that there is something to the American Way – it can and does do so much good, but like all things, balance is key.