Is sportsmanship another un-American activity?

Part II of two articles on the Tour de France and the cynicism of the sports media*

 “Chute lance Armstrong”**

cynic a. & n. …. one who sarcastically doubts or despises human sincerity and merit; hence ~ISM

(2) n. (f. L f. Gk kunikos (kuon kunos dog, nickname for Cynic…)

By TONY SEED

(11 June 2006) – A FIXED TARGET of the cynicism of the corporate sports media are the ideals and norms of amateur sport, specifically, sportsmanship and co-operation.

For this writer, one of the more refreshing moments in commercial professional sport unfolded on the morning of 21 July 2003 in the French Pyrénées mountains along the border with Spain in the Tour de France. The centennial race itself was thrilling to follow. The scenery is stunning.

The west side of Col du Tourmalet viewed from the top — the highest paved road in the French Pyrénées at 2115m (6939’)

“Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!” 

When it was first included in the Tour in 1910, the mythic Col du Tourmalet stage was knicknamed the Circle of Death. It extends 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) at an average 5.7 per cent). Consider this hilarious passage from La Fabuleuse Histoire du Tour de France by Pierre Chany:

Col du Tourmalet

“The Pyrénées were included in the Tour de France at the insistence of Alphonse Steinès, a colleague of the organiser, Henri Desgrange. Steinès first agreed that the Tour would pay 2,000 francs to clear the col d’Aubisque, then came back to investigate the Tourmalet. He started at Sainte-Marie-de-Campan with sausage, ham and cheese at the inn opposite the church and arranged to hire a driver called Dupont from Bagnères-de-Bigorre. Dupont and Steinès made it the first 16km, after which their car came to a stop.

Dupont and Steinès started to walk but Dupont turned back after 600m, shouting: “The bears come over from Spain when it snows.”

Steinès set off. He mistook voices in the darkness for thieves. They were youngsters guarding sheep with their dog. Steinès called to one.

“Son, do you know the Tourmalet well? Could you guide me? I’ll give you a gold coin. When we get to the other top, I’ll give you another one.”

The boy joined him but then turned back. Steinès rested on a rock. He considered sitting it out until dawn, then realised he’d freeze. He slipped on the icy road, then fell into a stream. He climbed back to the road and again fell in the snow. Exhausted and stumbling, he heard another voice.

“Tell me who goes there or I’ll shoot.”

“I’m a lost traveller. I’ve just come across the Tourmalet.”

“Oh, it’s you, Monsieur Steinès! We were expecting you! We got a phone call at Ste-Marie-de-Campan. Everybody’s at Barèges. It’s coming on for three o’clock. There are search teams of guides out looking for you.”

The organising newspaper, L’Autoz, had a correspondent at Barèges, a man called Lanne-Camy. He took him for a bath and provided new clothes.

Steines sent a telegram to Desgrange: “Crossed Tourmalet stop. Very good road stop. Perfectly feasible stop.”

Octave Lapize on the ascent

There is a statue perched on top of Tourmalet. In 1910, Octave Lapize was first over the summit, and shouted at the officials at the top “Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!” (“You are murderers! Yes, murderers!”). Lapize went on to win the tour that year and the statue perched atop them mountain is of him, not of the organizers or the corporate sponsors.

If you only watch one stage in the Tour, this is the one.

Central Pyrénées, Col de Tourmalet near Barages. Famous pass crossed by annual Tour de France – hence statue of cyclist Octave Lapize

An iconic moment

The American cyclist Lance Armstrong was going for a fifth consecutive win in the world’s largest and most important bicycle race, to join the likes of Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain as the only cyclist in history to win five Tours. Armstrong was decisively challenged by three riders. Armstrong had narrowly avoided serious injury earlier after a fall took one of his chief rivals from the Tour. With just six stages left, his lead over the formidable Jans Ullrich of Germany was fifteen seconds. “Do you know how little 15 seconds is?” Armstrong later asked rhetorically. “It’s nothing!”

The iconic moment came during the next-to-last mountain stage, at Luz Ardiden, where the race finishes on top of the steep, leg-dissolving mountain.

The powerful Ulrich had made a tactical attack on Armstrong on the day’s penultimate climb, ascending the Col du Tourmalet (2.645 metres, 8.675 feet.

Armstrong had just reeled him in at the base of the final ascent to Luz Ardiden.

As the road curved right to the ascent, Armstrong accelerated away slightly from Ulrich with Iban Mayo, the Basque rider from Spain, on his wheel.

The crash at the base of the Luz Ardiden. Mayo wears orange, Armstrong the yellow jersey and Ulrich green.

An over-zealous spectator – on the pedestrians’ barricades alongside the road, typically too close to the action – accidentally hooked Armstrong’s handlebars with his tote bag, sending the cyclist crashing to the asphalt.

A stunning moment. Professional cycling forces one to risk your life like a gladiator. The dream of six straight wins on ruin’s doorstep.

The Basque rider crashed over the top of Armstrong, slightly cracking Armstrong’s Trek bicycle frame. You can watch it on Youtube:

and

Both riders quickly got up and took off…

Ulrich, braked, dodged to his left around the pile-up, barely avoiding it, then slowed, waiting for the riders to resume their group. He could have easily jumped ahead to take the yellow jersey. There was less than ten kilometres left in the stage. In a race of over 2,100 miles that lasts three weeks, only a few minutes ultimately separate that top contenders and it can be impossible to make up lost time.

“It was correct that when Armstrong crashed, I did not attack, because cycling is a fair-play sport,” he said later.

But, as Armstrong tried to change gear, his rear derailleur stuck (from misalignment due to the cracked bicycle frame). His foot popped out of the pedal (from force!) and he fell again! Armstrong picked himself up and rethreaded the bike chain, screaming in fury.

The leading group of cyclists, despite being on opposing teams, peddled slowly, patiently waiting; the American Tyler Hamilton had motioned for the lead pack to slow down and wait for the two to recover themselves and rejoin the group. Said Hamilton: “After Lance crashed, the other guys kept on going, but it’s an unwritten rule that if the Maillot Jaune crashes, you give him a chance to get back. I didn’t feel like other guys were waiting, so it was my responsibility to go up front and tell them to slow down and wait a few seconds.”

Ulrich’s and Hamilton’s gesture was echoed by Discovery Channel team director Johan Bruyneel, a former racer, who said, “the fact that Ullrich waited for (Lance) was amazing. It was the attitude of a true champion.”

Ulrich later praised Armstrong as “an honourable guy” and “one of the classiest men in cycling.”

Perhaps he had remembered that Armstrong had done the same two years before in 2001, i.e., waiting for Ulrich after the German cyclist had gone not only off the road but down a slope while descending the Col de Peyresourde on the Plateau de Beille in the Pyrénées. It is said to be an unwritten gentleman’s rule of the Tour de France that the racing stops when the leader crashes, until it is determined whether he can continue or not.

“I knew they would wait,” Armstrong said after stage, “I would do the same for him, and in fact, I have done the same for him in the past. I was in a group with a few guys going down the Col de Peyresourde in the Tour two years ago, when Ulrich crashed. I saw that it was a bad one and told them that we couldn’t go on before we made sure he was alright. I am grateful that he remembered that today, and decided to do the same. The tables were turned two years ago and I think I did the correct thing two years ago, and what Jan did today was the correct thing. I appreciate that, and you know that what goes around comes around.

Something – a surge of adrenaline from his crash, sheer grit, heart – boosted a desperate Armstrong to courageously launch his second, ferocious, race-winning attack on the Luz Ardiden.

These are tough men. It is a grueling, punishing climb. Ullrich couldn’t follow. Mayo, a strong and nimble mountain climber in his own right, tried to take the lead, but failed to keep pace.

Post-crash and full of adrenalin, Lance Armstrong (US Postal-Berry Floor) ascends to his win at Luz Ardiden. Photo ©: Olympia Photo

Armstrong was off once again on his way to a stage win, another spectacular display of steeled stamina. It was a crucial moment in the three-week competition. By the finish line on the top, he had added almost a full minute to the gap between him and Ullrich, and now led by 67 seconds. More than the gained time was regained confidence, and possibly a demoralizing blow to that of his antagonist.

That summer on the cricket pitch on the Halifax Commons, some of my team-mates and myself talked animatedly about these moments that occurred a continent away for several days. Cricket is one of the sports ostensibly associated with sportsmanship as suggested by the phrase, “it ain’t cricket,” i.e., “it isn’t fair,” and a norm we strive to uphold on the pitch. It was something unbelievable . . . yet re-affirming. The media hoopla over the Kobe Bryant rape case, a sensational allegation against one of the most high profile American basketball players, staining the image of sport, was also in the back of our minds.

The operating budget for Ullrich’s T-Mobile team runs $25-30 million and that of Armstrong’s Discovery Channel around $12 million.

Despite that commercial pressure to win at all costs, a calm expression of ethics, civility, dignity, respect and co-operation in the midst of a pressure-packed competition; in a word, sportsmanship.

II

Sportsmanship: “Antithetical to American values”

OBVIOUSLY more than one discussion about sportsmanship was taking place in the society during that languid summer of 2003.

On came the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s Newsworld, a 24-hour news and commentary TV channel of the Canadian state, to tell me I should not trust my very own eyes.

The CBC deemed that the objective reality we had seen with our own eyes an Un-American activity.

The broadcast occurred in the midst of the political, ideological and cultural offensive of the Bush administration against France and other European states – those whom Donald Rumsfeld derisively called “Old Europe” – for refusing to endorse the Iraqi aggression of the “coalition of the willing” launched on March 20, 2003. On his orders, U.S. generals, defence industry CEOs and civilian military leaders stayed away from the Paris International Air Show, the largest arms bazaar in the world. Imperial hubris and chauvinist jokes about everything from France, from French Fries to the Statue of Liberty, reigned supreme in the United States. It was the time when the White House re-named French Fries “Freedom Fries” in its cafeteria, and the New York Post did a front page article with the heads of the French and German ambassadors replaced by the heads of weasels. In addition that “fair and balanced” Fox TV network and its pundit Bill O’Reilly pushed a boycott of French goods. For Fox Sports, it was enough that the Tour de France is, well, French:

“And it doesn’t speak highly of the ‘sport’ that its unassailable pinnacle consists of hanging out with French people while wearing a canary-yellow shirt.” (July 1, 2004, no longer archived on the Internet.)

Seemingly not sure what exactly to make of the mythic phenom or of the Tour de France, CBC Newsworld invited an “expert” into the studio to explain it all to us Canadians.

There are not a few Canadians knowledgeable about the Tour de France whom Newsworld could have easily invited. Steve Bauer who wore the Yellow Jersey for eight days in 1988, the insightful Michael Barry of Toronto, a cyclist who wrote the book, Inside the Postal Bus: My Ride With Lance Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Cycling Team (2005), or those involved with Cervélo, the Canadian bike company, spring to mind.

But no, the expert given a national platform on Canadian TV was an American sports writer, King Kaufman of salon.com, a liberal Internet magazine owned by the Microsoft multinational of Bill Gates.

Kaufman promptly launched into an attack on what he called the peculiar courtliness of the Tour de France. The values of sportsmanship, he pronounced, were “antithetical to American values” and something “for after the game.”

According to Kaufmann, cycling “doesn’t connect with Americans.”

The sport has nothing to do with multi-million-dollar sponsorships, markets, or the car culture. Here is the reason: It is part of the cultural wars! This specialist characterized sportsmanship as something European, mediaeval:

The Tour de France leaves Americans cold because it is almost perfectly antithetical to the American character. (Too) Much is made of the gentlemanly, almost courtly sportsmanship in cycling.”

This is the wretched content of Kaufman’s rant, unparalleled conceit,  delusions of grandeur, degradation and arrogance such that the survival of healthy human and social norms in the arena of sport is deemed un-American and a near-impossibility. They were already spelled out in a series of articles he had previously written in his column on salon.com, from which, for the sake of accuracy, I am quoting verbatim. His views are beneath contempt.

Psychological blackmail: “Here’s the American way to compete: Try to knock the other guy down, and if you succeed, put your boot on his neck and keep it there until he cries uncle” 

Kaufman’s articles certainly caught the attention of CBC Newsworld and formed the basis for its invitation to be featured on Canadian public television and to disinform Canadians. But along with the obvious attack on “Old Europe” there is another agenda at work behind this psychological blackmail.

Increasingly, Canadian athletes are being accused of an alleged tendency to “choke” in international competition or being allegedly satisfied with merely achieving personal bests. The athletes who risk their health and even their lives in the so-called free market of sport are being blamed for the lack of resources and support from governments at all levels in Canada. As the solution to the perceived “crisis” in Canadian athletics, these forces are exerting this pressure as a pretext to impose the neo-liberal, anti-social model; sport as the direct instrument of the self-serving monopolistic and imperialistic interest, something which can be bought and bartered, which dictates a new criteria for funding athletes and rewarding performance. The screw is being turned on the athletes by the state and corporate media, all for the golden aim of maximizing the winning of medals for Canada at forthcoming Olympics and proving the superiority of “Canadian values” to a world in rebellion. The Olympic motto “citius, altius, fortius” – faster, higher, stronger – is reduced and tied precisely to that end. The Tour de France is merely grist for the mill, in order for Newsworld and its “expert” to zero in on what decisions the athlete makes and the risks he or she take individually and collectively to achieve a goal, that is, the human factor / social consciousness.

For Newsworld and Kaufman such a moment of co-operation and camaraderie on the Luz Ardiden in the French Pyrenees was an individual decision and collective conduct unacceptable for the elite athlete: “It’s all very sporting and civilized and everything,” Kauffman stated, “and while I find that sort of co-operation heartwarming and admirable, it’s also as foreign to me as a Martian soil sample.

What is native soil to this uncultured scribbler is the Anglo-American imperialist philosophy of pragmatism, the truth is what works, that is, the truth is what you can get away with:

“I think I’m in the absolute dead-center mainstream of American thought here. This is the national character speaking. I think that down in our bones, most of us can’t fathom this business of gentlemanliness and sportsmanship. For better or worse, here’s the American way to compete: Try to knock the other guy down, and if you succeed, put your boot on his neck and keep it there until he cries uncle. (1)

To paraphrase Malcolm X: stick a knife in ten inches, pull it out six, help the dead man up, steal his wallet, and tell everyone this is sportsmanship, “this is the national character speaking”: “here’s the American way to compete.”

Kaufman continues:

“And if you see his wallet while he’s down there, take it.

“Sportsmanship means helping him up after you’ve cleaned his clock. Before then, it can be summed up in these three words: Don’t cheat blatantly.

A predator can’t get much clearer than that.

One can gain a sense of the racial bent which causes the American to feel that he is “a cut above” the rest of humanity in some sense, that his superior nature and athleticism contains mysteries and talents including thuggery and cheating not found in others, and that the American was created in this way by exceptional circumstances. The world, including the sphere of sport, which U.S. imperialism created in its image, could not survive without its exceptional norms which it presents as modern. And because the rest of the world does not get it, this propagandist calls for the purification of sport of “medieval” practices by annihilating (“knocking the other guy down”) in order that those who succeed may “take his wallet.” Writ large, this forms an ideological foundation for terrorism, for using the most extreme forms of violence against one’s opponent. The sports media are filled, in fact, with pages of such Old Testament verses. It is rooted in an incessant state of paranoia of all things foreign and inimical to the “American way of life,” driving it to maintain superiority by intimidating and terrorizing its opponents, on and off the playing field, so as not to leave room for them to even think of touching the American entity.

It is possible to draw only one conclusion from this degenerate outlook. It is OK for athletes to use any means including glamorized violence, vulgarity and theft to achieve the golden end, winning, a means to achieve superiority over The Other. The elementary norms of the level playing field and the rule of law – in sport known as the laws of the game – cannot exist in the neo-liberal model, except as something to be manipulated as camouflage for the selfish ends of the powerful. The moral image of humanistic sport and the norms of social solidarity and human co-operation such as sportsmanship and camaraderie – norms characteristic of the working class – are decreed as something uncivilized, foreign, Martian, and threatening to the ethics of naked individual self-interest which must be paramount. This is American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, Social Darwinism, Might is Right, Scorched Earth warfare, and All or Nothing all rolled up into one.

This is what is at stake in sport today. This is the medieval model of WWF and what Mr Kaufman, the sports media and government cynically wants to impose through this imagery. It is unacceptable. This should be taken into account when someone holds parents accountable for the negation and degradation of all that is positive in sport.

Athletes are not only the protagonists of the sporting spectacle, they are the raison d’être. It is high time to realize their importance and treat them with respect, regardless of the colours they wear or their sport. This also means respect for the ideals they uphold and the sacrifices they make.

Kaufman’s predatory language is more in keeping with the law of the jungle and blood revenge than the ethos of modern sportsmanship.

Is winning everything in sports? v the human factor / social consciousness

But when one really thinks about it, what is winning? The question is rarely asked. Is winning everything in sports? What is the aim of winning? To win? The USA is riddled with self-help books seeking, specifically, to “teach” how to be a winner. Rare is the work which teaches the meaning of losing and the lessons we can draw from this, although it is in sport from which one can learn. Most American athletes including Lance Armstrong will swear fervently that winning is the be-all and end-all. There was the Nike commercial that ran during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996: “You Don’t Win Silver. You Lose Gold.” In the face of this all-round pressure, parents and coaches who try to teach kids principles and ethics that, “It’s how you play the game that matters” are hard-pressed to contend with the win-at-all-cost attitude. The Canadian Olympian who achieves a personal best in international competition, who has converted years of hard work, training and sacrifice into an improvement in human performance, is now to feel that he let his team-mates and the nation down because he did not “win” the medal.

Sports today are guided by a higher motive than “winning is everything.” They are big business first. The answer is not as clear as one initially would think. For instance, in capitalism, profit is the ultimate objective. Maximizing profits in the minimum amount of time is decisive, regardless of the long-term damage to the game or to the athlete on and off the field. Proving the superiority of the system based on profit and negating all thinking, the human factor / social consciousness and the norms of social solidarity and human co-operation such as sportsmanship, that stand in the way of its anti-social offensive, serves the perpetuation of that crisis-riddled, capital-centred system.

Major League Baseball, a U.S. cartel of monopolies, shortened the fences of their parks to fuel the home run derbies of the late 1990s as a marketing gimmick to rebuild their fan base. The San Francisco Giants made a baseball park that catered directly to the power of Barry Bonds. In baseball, winning wasn’t everything. Maximizing profit was. The manipulation of the playing field is put to that self-serving end.

Whether it is sportsmanship or “Winning is everything” – “any means to the end” – all is incidental to the service of that one over-riding goal, maximum profit, exploitation and plunder, the central American Activity that Mr Kaufman and Newsworld are silent about.

Someone has said, “The game ends when everyone wins.” Let us promote sport and contribute to the development of children and youth. Canadians should disavow the barbaric message of CBC Newsworld as illegal and unworthy of a Canadian public broadcaster. Canadians and athletes must speak up in defence of the highest ideals of sport and humankind.

Endnotes

* Second of two parts. For Part I, see Tony Seed, “Sacre bleu: Why is the Globe and Mail assassinating the athlete?,” August 5, 2005, amateursport.com

** Chute is French for fall; “Chute lace Armstrong” was the call over race radio when Armstrong went down in the 15th stage.

(1) “King Kaufman’s Sports Daily,” Salon.com, July 25, 2003,

http://www.salon.com/news/sports/col/kaufman/2003/07/25/friday/index.html

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Is sportsmanship another un-American activity?

  1. Pingback: Sacre bleu: Why is the Globe and Mail assassinating the athlete? | Friendship First, Competition Second

  2. Pingback: In memoriam: Paul Sherwen, 62, the Voice of the Tour de France | Friendship First, Competition Second – An Amateur Sport Website

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