Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Alcibiades on a bike?

I didn't blog about this year's Tour de France at all.

Writing that surprises me. I've blogged the Tour every year I've been doing this, from the tainted 2006 Tour of Floyd Landis to the 2007 Tour with all the drama of the expulsion of Rasmussen, the heroism and then the shame of Vinokourov, and the arrival of Alberto Contador and the departure of Team Discovery to 2008 and the Year of Little Carlos.

I enjoy pro cycling the way other men enjoy porn; seeing the flaws and the fakery and the seamy byplay of it all but enjoying the resultant pleasures - and mortification - of the flesh, nevertheless. In this case, the flesh, bone and muscle it takes to get on a bicycle and ride over a thousand kilometers in three weeks. Through little towns and great cities, fields of flowers and industrial wastelands. Up to the summits of the great mountains of history, through the passes where Charles Martel and Napoleon's soldiers marched. It's just a great sport.

But not this year. I'm not sure why. Caution, perhaps. So many of the riders have been caught doping, it's always a chancy thing now to predict or celebrate a great ride.But the other reason was, I think, that I sensed the possibility of a really ugly Tour with the return of Lance Armstrong. I've discussed before why I think LA's return to the sport isn't an unalloyed benefice. And, sure enough, the Armstrong Show had an immense impact on, and I think a very mixed impact on, this year's Tour.

The is no question that the presence of Armstrong raises the awareness of the Tour in this country. When LA is not riding the conversation I hear about the race is pretty much confined to the real hard-cores, the genuine cycling fanatics (of which we have more than a few here in Portland...)

Once you get away from the Bike Gallery or the Portland Wheelmen the level of interest drops to...well, pretty much zero. I doubt that 90% of the Portlanders you see sporting a Livestrong yellow bracelet could pick Frank Schleck or Mark Cavendish out of a crowd if you put a gun to their heads. But add our Texas boy back in, and...well, you know the answer.

In fact, the Versus people counted on the Armstrong Effect this year. In a small but telling gesture they added a tiny Astana jersey to the usual lineup of category leaders' jerseys at the bottom of the screen that tells you where the leaders are at any point in the day's stage.

So you knew not only where the GC, points, mountains and young rider leaders were...but where the uncrowned King of Cycling was. I know this seems trivial, but did they do this for Sastre, the defending champion? Had they done this for ANYone before Armstrong? I mean, great champion or not, this is a 38-year-old coming off four years of retirement and a broken collarbone. Why should we have any expectations of him other than that he would try and do his best to win, as he always does?

Oh, yeah, right. He's LANCE ARMSTRONG!

So. The Tour was it's usual wonderful mix of vicious politics, brute force, gasp-inducing skill and grinding endurance. Those of us who watched got to enjoy the usual sights of the color and power of the peleton, great breakaways, monster climbs and frightening descents (including Jen's Voigt's horrific crash descending the Col de Petit San Bernard shown here - warning, not for the faint of heart). The story, as always, was who would cross the finish line in Paris in yellow, and Alberto Contador was that man.But I have to think that winning his second Tour was extraordinarily difficult for Alberto, and not because of the heat, the wind, the climbs - and the Spaniard climbs like a goddamn elevator - or the crashes. It was because of all the attention paid to his teammate Armstrong.

Johan Bruyneel is a very bright man and a great maker of cycling teams. If this Tour is any indication of his personality, however, he is also a poor man-manager and something of a jerk. Signing Armstrong to a team that already had a GC monster as leader showed that he either 1) had lost confidence in his man Contador, 2) was so in love with Armstrong that he was willing to risk an all-out fight between him and the Spaniard rather than see LA sign with another team, or 3) thought so much of himself that he thought he could ride both these tigers to a podium sweep in Paris.

Well, the expected occurred. Contador and Armstrong are predators, egotistic men who live to win. The veneer of politeness wore thinner and thinner as the tour went on, until finally Contador attacked on the slopes of the Col de Verbier, taking the yellow jersey.

He did the same again three days later, to the public ire of his team director and his teammate Armstrong (who, by then, was by tradition and financial caution rendered unable to attack a yellow jersey held his own team) for dropping his teammate Andreas Kloden out of contention for a GC podium. With his immense climbing strength and the dramatic mountaintop finish on Mont Ventoux the penultimate stage the outcome was pretty much decided. Only the ill feelings persisted.Of course, there were other stories - there always are, that's the glory of the Tour - such as the Schleck brothers riding for the glory of Luxembourg (has Luxembourg EVER had any glory?), or the incredible speed of Mark Cavendish who yet managed to get schooled by the flying fox, Thor Hushovd, in how to win a points jersey without blinding speed.The race ran its three-week course of victory and defeat, of pain, hard work, desire, the thrones and dominations and all the splendor thereof. Not to mention the silliness, indignity and fatuousness, which is pretty much what you'd expect for any great human endeavour...So as much as I enjoyed this year's Tour, I came away feeling a little sadness for Contador, the young man whose second victory will always be tainted by the anger and frustration he must feel at his own team, its manager and his "teammate" Armstrong. And that brought me back to the man from Plano and what our obsession with him says about him, and about us.

I don't know anything about Armstrong the man. The notion that we can "know" people we have never met is a curious development of the electronic media and its saturation with the lives of the famous (although these are often known only for a sort of circular fame that rests on their simply being well known; modern celebrity seems to require neither exceptional wisdom nor particular skills but merely a complete lack of privacy). I can only guess by what is reported of his actions.

He is, obviously, a very driven man, personally and professionally. A man of great ego, and self-absorption; one has to be, to be a great athlete. Of his continuing battle after his cancer we are told of his indomitable will and his zeal for life. Of his personal tastes, he seems to be a bit...simple. We've learned so much else about him, but not that he writes poetry, plays the koto, knows how to swing dance or enjoys the films of Harold Ramis. He seems, well, a bit of an athlete: uncomplicated (a synonym for "kinda crude") and direct. Hard to say...

His politics appear to be a bit of a mystery; he is a personal friend of perhaps the worst U.S. President since James Buchanan, George W. Bush, but is quoted as saying that he "disagrees" with the idiot son of George and Barbara.

I respect the man's strength and courage. But it's telling how small things affect how we feel about other people we don't really know; Armstrong lost the ability to touch me more deeply with his cutting treatment of his former fiancee'.

To publicly claim that he broke off the engagement because he "didn't want more children" only months ahead of his impregnation of his new squeeze?

Cruel, Lance. Very cruel.

Here's the thing, though.

Armstrong was publicly discussed as a political candidate back in 2005/2006. He himself talked about a possible run for governor of Texas (but scrapped these plans when - I suspect - it became obvious to LA that as GOP governor of Texas he would have to make decisions to please his party that would cut off a lot of his Livestrong donations). But he was considered by some, and still is in some places, as a viable political candidate.

On earth - why?

We don't really KNOW the man. What we do know - especially in light of his treatment of Sheryl Crow - suggests that he is, for all his virtues, also a ruthless egotist with a side of cruel.

(For those of you who don't recognize her, this is the FIRST Mrs. Armstrong, Kristin, whom he dumped for Sheryl Crow. Who may have been the first to get the real feeling for how ruthless the man can be when he wants something.)

But he's famous! How can he be ruthless, callous or mean? Don't we know him? Don't we LIKE him?

People have always been entertained, or even obsessed, by the rich and "well-born". The extravagance and public display of royalty and nobility constituted perhaps the only public benefit of monarchy prior to the electronic age. But it is since the arrival of the mass print media, newspapers, television and movies that real Celebrity Culture has launched. We are bombarded, saturated, with the doings of the rich, the highly places, or the merely "famous". In the Seventies Rula Lenska

was a sensation because she became well known for...being well known. She was a novelty, a curiousity, a freak. Today she would barely qualify as a footnote. Our public fascination for celebrities like Rula and Lance Armstrong has become almost inescapable.

So what?

Well, the "what" is that we have begun to - in the words of P.J. O'Rourke - "impute unlikely virtues to the cute." The damn cult of celebrity has left the entertainment page and the moviehouse to wander over into politics and the public square. Where once we elected generals (as if U.S. Grant hadn't warned us about the foolishness of THAT form of hero-worship...) we now elect actors. Ronald Reagan. Arnold Schwartzenegger.

Sonny Fucking Bono.

It seems like any idiot with an Equity card can get elected, at least as a Republican (tho with Al Franken we may have the Democratic equivalent). So why not Lance Armstrong? Despite the evidence of the man's professional sporting life as well as hints from his personal life that many of the attributes valuable in a public figure: thoughtfulness, self-criticism, empathy, humility (to go with the more common decisiveness, confidence and intelligence) are lacking or severely stunted in him, he certainly wouldn't be the worst well-known person we've ever elected to power here in the United States.

A democracy's deepest vulnerability is to demagoguery. Would be autocrats may attempt to conquer it, wealthy malefactors to purchase it, bureaucratic moguls to subvert it. But nothing can destroy a democracy so thoroughly and so permanently as the foolishness and greed of its people. "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury." (interestingly, I have always thought that this quote is from de Toqueville - I see that it is not. Regardless, it is well put, and the longer version of the famous Dick Cheney statement: "Deficits don't matter".)

Add to foolishness and greed the public's willingness to promote to public office someone whose primary quality is that people have seen them on television in a uniform, or in costume. For any polity to choose its leaders based on how they look or what they do is often a mistake. For a democracy, where trust between leaders and led is so crucial, electing incompetent boobs because of their scripted sound bites sound good coming out of a familiar and pretty talking head...well...

In the early 400s BC Athens, then the leader of one faction fighting the Peloponnesian War, debated the next campaign against Sparta. One of the Athenian politicians was a very handsome and gifted young orator named Alcibiades.Of this man, Thucydides says: "Alcibiades, son of Clinias, who wished to thwart Nicias both as his political opponent and also because of the attack he had made upon him in his speech, and who was, besides, exceedingly ambitious of a command by which he hoped to reduce Sicily and Carthage, and personally to gain in wealth and reputation by means of his successes."

Alcibiades helped talk the Athenians into one of the most disastrous campaigns in military history - the Sicilian Expedition. His oratory, and the citizen's greed for power and loot, combined to begin the end of the great Greek democracy.I don't know if Lance the politician has the potential to be our Alcibiades. None of us does - in fact, we don't really know the man at all. The problem is that our celebrity-infatuation makes us feel like we do. So we keep electing our Lances. And Reagans. And Schwartzeneggers. And Sonny Fucking Bonos.

After all, they're celebrities. We hear about them and see them and know all about their lives. They're so strong, and so pretty, and it's like they're our friends because we know them so well.How could they possibly ever betray us..?


Lisa said...

To the illustrious Mr. Bono, we must add Jesse "The Body" Ventura, who would vie with Mr. Bono for gravitas.

Perhaps there is a problem with how Americans must see their leaders: vital, cocky, irreverent (?) We disparage the Kucinich's because they are not the stuff of a People cover, and are too heavy, anyway. Perhaps the problem is the yearning for the bright and snappy hero who gets the girl du jour.

With him, we can see ourselves anew, and all good things accrue to those who show enough mettle and are willing to be a little cutthroat in the name of upward mobility. Trading up is the name of the game.

Perhaps the problem is more universal. By affiliation -- wearing the jersey or the bracelet, or riding the bike or using the racket -- we, too, are bumped up a notch or two. Perhaps it comes down to personal dissatisfaction, and the desire for amusement and being able to fixate on a charismatic character outside of our own workaday lives.

Perhaps people both aspire to affiliate with these heroes, and enjoy the schadenfreude of their inevitable defeats.

They might be giants, too.

FDChief said...

"Perhaps it comes down to personal dissatisfaction, and the desire for amusement and being able to fixate on a charismatic character outside of our own workaday lives."

I wonder...

I have to say that I'm pretty satisfied with who I am. Sure, I'd like to be taller, prettier and wealthier. But, all things considered, I've been there and done that, and I've grown into a pretty decent man, husband and father.

But there seems to be a slightly skeevy element of envy, or wish-fulfillment, or vicarious snoopery, in the whole celebritization of our world. It's as if we're being encouraged to view these people as bigger, better than we are, to feel that we're somehow not complete, or lesser, if we aren't in some way associated with them, whether it's by wearing their bracelet, or buying their tchochkes, or voting for them.

I just can't think that that sort of idolatry is good for a democracy.

rangeragainstwar said...

You could've used quotes from Cat Stevens song- THE FIRST CUT IS THE DEEPEST. S. Crow covered that song with a very nice effort. It applies well to your comments.

Lisa said...


Yes -- there is the hawker's pitch underlying our barely veiled idolotry: You, too, can be a part.
What most people fail to grasp is that they already are.

Your personal satisfaction is meet, but I'm sure you feel the dissatisfaction around you. It is Edward G. Robinson's plaintive "More" from Key Largo. He cannot discriminate, but he knows he hasn't enough. He lacks.

What is skeevy is how all our institutions conspire in keeping us in this state of lack, the state of the supplicant.

A democracy cannot fully live up to the name without a free demos, and as you indicate, we are enslaved, to greater or lesser degrees.

FDChief said...

Jim: I haven't heard her newest stuff, but I agree that her version of that tune would pretty much cover how our man Lance treated her.

We all have the right to end whatever we have with someone else, whether its a love affair, a business partnership or a friendship. But a real person keeps the personal details of that now-dead association to themselves. To me, the breakup of his marriage and his engagement were his business. But to then rub the woman's nose in her childlessness - as he was in the process of becoming the babydaddy for a younger, sleeker model - was needlessly, pointlessly cruel.

Big Daddy said...

Congratulations, your discussion of the Lance's bad behavior was the final straw, and I just took off the yellow bracelet I have been wearing for months to make my wife happy. During this year's TdF, as I read the coverage, and read about Kristin Armstrong I felt less and less happy about wearing the symbol of somebody I increasingly thought of as callous and egotistical. The details of his breakup with Sheryl Crow just crystallized my distaste for Lance's character. Of course it says something about my disinterest in celebrity culture that I only knew he had dumped Sheryl Crow and not why.
For what it's worth I rooted for Contador to win after being snubbed in 2008 and my favorite rider was Franco Pellizotti, who didn't figure in the pre-race stuff but earned his paycheck with the climber's jersey. Of course I would be hard pressed to recognize most pro racers since I only see them in helmets and shades but I could probably ID Menchov and Basso FWIW.

The next time I ride my road bike I will feel purer and cleaner for having shed my false affiliation with Lance and only displaying the image of somebody I can really get behind, Cookie Monster.