Adam Zero's ramblings and rants on popular music, culture, politics, folklore, religion and related skullduggery.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Meaning of Lance

In our post-mythic age, our sports stars have become more than mere athletes. They have become symbols of what is best, or worst, in our culture. Our demigods and devils. Michael Jordan and OJ Simpson. Tiger Woods and Mike Tyson.

The demigods represent achievement, victory, winning—that remains somehow selfless. Or self-transcendent. They do it for us. They allow us, the spectator, to become part of their triumph. There is an innocence, almost childlike, in their victory—it renews the culture’s faith in itself and where it is headed.

The devils do it for themselves. Something drives them not only to beat but to humiliate the foe. Destroy the rival. Break the limits. There is a sense of bitter experience, almost defeat, in their victory—it weakens the culture’s faith in itself and makes it wonder where it is headed. They call it winning ugly.

Of course we are not talking about reality but myth. OJ may have started out as a demigod and only to descend to devil (at least in some peoples’ eyes) after the murders of Ron and Nicole. Mike Tyson, well, is Mike Tyson.

But what about Lance? Why this ambivalence towards his amazing feat, not only over cancer, but also seven consecutive Tour de France titles? Thomas Friedman sees Lance as a hero—using him as a strategic planner/delayed gratification model that short-sighted make-the-next-quarters-numbers culture of corporate America could learn something from. Others—cyclists and skeptics—see a hollowness in Lance’s achievement. He only dominated the Tour de France, not the Tours of Italy and Spain. At times he seemed more machine than man, with his unabashed embrace of hi-tech wizardry and aerobic science. And there were the persistent doping rumors—although he never once failed a drug test.

I don’t think it has helped Lance either that his unique physiognomy—abilities to take in more oxygen with his lungs and process lactose in his blood—has become the fodder of cable documentaries. It lessens the romance and thrill (and the gut-level human competitiveness) to know that Lance has these natural gifts.

Of course most great athletes have great natural gifts, but with Lance it’s become a chicken-or-egg thing. Would he have been a champion without the extraordinary level of his natural gifts? Do the natural gifts make the playing field almost uneven?

One might counter, if the guy’s so dominant physically why didn’t he sweep the Tours of Italy and Spain?

So the arguments go. They are the stuff of sports.

For me, Lance is a hero, demigod not a devil. I wasn’t wild about his dumping his wife for his rockstar girlfriend, but the will-to-win and transcendence is written on his face when he rides. And I don’t care how well he processes lactose, you can tell the guy’s in pain, but he seems motivated by something beyond himself. Cancer survivors, America, his kids--who knows?

Maybe that’s why he’s a hero for America today. We need to learn to cope with pain, play with pain, not be afraid of it. We can’t let terrorists or enemies of freedom and liberty deny us those very things by creating a state made safe by an unpatriotic Patriot Act? We need to look at the hill in front of us, feel the burn in our thighs and keep climbing. And not care about the yellow jersey, but just making it to the top of that next hill.


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