Lance Armstrong is a Jerk

lanceThe headlines should read “Lance Armstrong is a jerk!” That’s the beginning, middle and the end of anything else ever written about the guy — and not because he pedaled his ass over the Pyrenees higher than the Matterhorn. At this point, who cares? Come to find out, most of the cyclists at the Tour de France have so many drugs in them, their pee has been patented by Dow Chemical. Here’s an interesting fact: since 1980, France’s most prestigious bicycle race has been won 17 times (that we know of) by the gentlemanly use of performance-enhancing drugs – that’s over half! So, it’s not like doping is unusual. Nor is he a jerk just for lying about it. What was he going to do … admit it? That would be like Al Capone phoning Eliot Ness to admit he owned a couple of speakeasies. No, Lance Armstrong is a jerk because he thinks he’s smarter than the rest of us. The unfortunate thing is he might be right.
The sordid details of Mr. Armstrong’s misdeeds have been reported to death, so there’s no need to retrace them here. Suffice it to say that Lance concocted an elaborate chemical scheme to turn himself into a superhuman. It succeeded beyond his wildest expectations, and he basked in glory for many, many years – collecting the accolades, admiration and cold, hard cash that come with athletic success. However, Lance didn’t stop there. He wasn’t content with two, four or even six championships: he wanted seven, and when he got that he even tried for eight. The audacity of the man is unbelievable. There he was, year after year, doing things no human being (not even his drug-bloated competition) could accomplish and smiling about it. What did he think? No one would notice? Or, did he simply believe that he could fool the entire world forever? These are rhetorical questions that only Mr. Armstrong himself can answer; which brings us to January 2013, nearly 14 years after Lance first sacrificed his honour for Tour de France laurels. Tomorrow, he’s going to sit down in front of the world and confess his sins. And we’re all waiting to hear it.
However, there will be no ordinary press conference for Lance Armstrong. Helance1 will not be relegated to a shame-faced confession and a couple of sincerity tears that get slotted into the morning news — after the headlines, traffic and weather. Lance is going prime time, and the three-ring media circus he’s hauling with him is being brought to you by the 20st century’s Uber Agony Auntie, Oprah Winfrey. In an ingenious attempt at reviving two faded careers, Lance and Oprah have organized an interview extravaganza. This two-night stand is designed to put them both back, wall-to-wall, on video screens around the world. It’s an arrangement made in public relations heaven.
Ever since Oprah decided she needed a whole network because (a la Norma Desmond) she was big and it’s only the television stations that got small, she’s fallen out of the sky. Like it or lump it, her audience numbers just aren’t there, anymore. Even, in an election year, Barack and Michelle couldn’t rekindle the old Midwest magic. So Oprah has unleashed her formidable Harpo publicity machine to tease the world into believing a guy who rides a bicycle is big news. They’re treating it like some magnificent media mating with hints, innuendos and voyeur-style sneak previews. I’m no follower of Freud, but Oprah herself is quoted by the BBC as saying, “At the end of it…we were both pretty exhausted. And I would say I was satisfied.” Make of that what you will, but it certainly is intriguing.
For his part, I’m sure Lance is considering a seven-figure book deal to pay the legal bills when all the people he lied to come calling. Oprah’s celebrity (faded as it is) isn’t going to do him any harm there. Besides, who better to confess to than the High Priestess of Jell-o Journalism? It’s not like she’s going to ask him any hard questions like, “Did you think the French were morons?” Plus, as long as he doesn’t jump around on the sofa, she’s going to make him look good.
This Lance and Oprah show is almost guaranteed to go off the scale on the ratings meter. It’s become an event. So, at the end of the day, maybe Lance Armstrong is smarter than the rest of us. He’s never going to be treated like the smarmy little cheater he obviously is. He’s probably going to write a book and maybe even get a movie deal. In fact, after tomorrow, his future is going to look pretty damn good.
However, it doesn’t matter how many times he confesses to God and Oprah Winfrey. It doesn’t matter how many stagy tears collect in the corner of his eye or how much remorse (real or imagined) he says he feels. At the end of the day, he’s not about to give back any of the money he “earned.” And until he does that, he’s just a jerk.

Golf is Not a Metaphor for Anything!

golfI don’t play golf.  I don’t know anything about the game.  If asked, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a birdie, an eagle, two penguins and a duck, or whatever other fowl they use to keep score.  (Personally, I think most games where the lowest score wins are suspect, anyway.)  However, that’s not to say I am philosophically opposed to golf.  I’m not one of those people who wants to dig up all the golf courses and plant potatoes for the poor or anything.  I just don’t see the obsessive enjoyment golfers get from the game.  At the risk of pissing off many of my relatives and most of my friends, I have no idea why anyone would want to spend a Sunday morning stumbling around a pasture in the first place.  Nor do I see the intrinsic excitement involving in whacking a little white ball with what appears to be a medieval weapon best suited for hand-to-hand combat — especially since the purpose is to somehow drive the ball into a tiny hole that’s normally 200, 300 or an inconceivable 400 yards away.  Quite frankly, at that distance, I couldn’t clearly identify a Baltimore Ravens linebacker let alone a hole in the ground that’s the size of a teacup.  In fact, I think getting your little white ball even close to the hole it’s supposed to go into is a matter of out and out luck.  And actually putting it in with any regularity has got to be wizardry at its most occult – Annika Sorenstam notwithstanding.

However, as much as I could badmouth golf all day, the only reason I’m even writing about it is it has one amazing feature which simply doesn’t exist in any other sport – the Mulligan.  For the uninitiated, the Mulligan is basically a do-over.  It works like this.  You’re standing over your ball, rear back and give it a mighty wallop and it goes someplace unfortunate, like into your opponent’s ear or miraculously through the window of a passing car.  Rather than just swear for an hour and get three Budgies (or whatever) on your score card, you can simply declare a Mulligan and do it all again.  Obviously, when the big boys are playing the Interplanetary Championship, it’s not allowed (otherwise Tiger Woods would still be hauling in the hardware) but in most friendly games it’s perfectly legal.  Weird, huh?

Nobody seems to know where this strange scenario came from (It certainly wasn’t invented by the Scots — who are Presbyterian to the bone) but it’s been around since the first part of the last century.  It’s always attributed to some guy named Mulligan.  However, after that, the only thing we can say with any certainty is he must have been bigger and meaner than the fellows he was playing with; otherwise they wouldn’t have let him cheat like that.  It’s nogolf1 wonder that this kind of chicanery caught on, though; golfers are notorious for bending the rules.  Even before Mary, Queen of Scots, took to the links, golfers were kicking sand on each other’s balls and lying about their handicaps (challenges?)  The Mulligan is right up their fairway.  Fortunately, this Mulligan nonsense never migrated into more important sports.  Third and ten, bottom of the ninth, three seconds left on the Shot Clock: none of that would work at all, if every coach could just holler “Mulligan!” and get to do it over again.  (It’s a good thing they can’t, either, or there wouldn’t be a respectable bookie left anywhere from here to Vegas.)

They say sports, like art, imitates life.  We have highs and lows, triumphs and defeats, and all the other clichés in between.  I imagine there are whole battalions of philosophers out there explaining how the game of golf is a metaphor for life and wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just take a Mulligan when we screw up.  Who cares?  For my money, reading about golf is probably just as boring as the game itself.  Besides, does anybody really want a world with every idiot and his half-witted cousin running around going Groundhog Day on life’s well-manicured pasture, forever trying to get it right?

The Stanley Cup Playoffs: The Rites of Spring

Although it’s going unnoticed by most of the world, today is the start of the toughest sporting event on the planet: the annual Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Yes, I know: World Cup is the Big Kahuna; more people watch baseball; rugby is strength and stamina; and Aussie Rules Football is nothing short of legalized assault and battery.  But, big wow!   Kilo for kilo, the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy on Earth to play for and the most difficult to win.  Tonight, sixteen ice hockey teams will start a two month marathon which is the most grueling tournament in professional sports.  Lord Stanley’s Cup is reserved for the mentally strong and the physically resilient; no others need apply.  If you can’t cut it, go home: this is a game for the brave.

The rules of the Stanley Cup Playoffs are simple: win 16 games – four out of seven against each opponent.  If you do that, the Cup is yours and, unlike most professional trophies, you can do what you want with it.  Most players take it back to their hometowns to show the parents and their old friends what they’ve been doing for the last couple of years.  That’s the thing about the Stanley Cup: it has an old time feel about it.  It’s small town puppies and lemonade, not big city glitz.  The teams might be located in New York and Los Angeles, Toronto and Montreal, but the players come from Pincourt, Grimsby, Livonia and Ornskoldsvik.  They are the boys of winter who learned the game after school.  They played on artificially frozen ponds, just like their grandfathers did on the real thing.  They understand the heritage of the game and the structure.  They know what it takes to win: straight-edged mental toughness that destroys your opponents’ will before he does that to you.  So every second night (or thereabouts) for the next two months, young men will lace up their skates and fly at each other in a series of full-contact ballets, choreographed at 35 MPH.

Directing a 3 inch rubber disc with a curved stick on glare ice takes the hands of Picasso.  Delivering and absorbing punishing body checks in full battle dress takes the physique of Baryshnikov.  Constantly remembering your place on the ice — at top speed — takes the concentration of Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer combined.  But to do all these things, night after night, travelling back and forth across the continent can only be learned by the self-discipline of desire.  These boys want the Stanley Cup more than anything else in the world.  As children, they dreamed about it and practiced and skated alone with the puck until the stick they carried became an extension of their arm.  As adolescents, they lost teeth, forgot birthdays and missed the girlfriends they grew up with.  Now, as men, they are willing to tape up their injuries, stitch up the gashes, patch over the bruises and ignore the pain and nagging fatigue to take just one skated circle with the Cup in their hands.  Superstition has it that no hockey player may even touch the Cup until he wins it.

To the hockey tribes of North America, the game is more than bone-jarring collisions on YouTube, bare knuckle brawls and concussions.  It is chivalry on ice, played by contemporary knights, with no quarter asked or given.  It is brutal finesse; the meeting of Hermes the Swift and Thor, the Thunder God.  But the Stanley Cup Playoffs are not just a war of attrition, nor is the Stanley Cup a trophy given only to the strong.  In the end, when one team steps forward to touch the Cup for the first time, it will be their mental tenacity that prevails; the strength of mind that has always carried the warrior spirit forward.  It is that indomitable voice that says to each player night after arduous night — “Once more into the breach  … once more.”

I’ve never wanted anything that badly.