There’s a big gap of seven spaces with an asterisk instead of a name on the Tour de France list of champions from 1999 to 2005. Those spaces were once filled by Lance Armstrong. The disgraced American cycling champion tested positive for doping, and his name was removed from the record list.
Armstrong’s demise led to the public ignoring of the sport of cycling as well, at least in the United States.
He wasn’t alone in his use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs, many of his rivals were also forced out of the sport or withdrew on their own instead of facing public humiliation when blood test results revealed they were doping too. The cheating was so widespread that the winning times in the event plummeted immediately once widespread drug testing was implemented.
The lack of coverage of the Tour de France on American sports networks isn’t out of the ordinary for a society that is told by the talking heads of the 24/7 sports media that the only thing that matters is winning. Once Americans were again back in the pack as they were in almost every other Tour de France dating back to its inception, with a nod to Greg LeMond who won three of the events from 1986 to 1990, the viewing audience lost interest.
If you don’t win, people won’t watch, and winning, no matter how much you cheat, is the message that endures. You can steal as the Houston Astros did, cheat as the New England Patriots did with Tom Brady throwing lower-than-legal pressure footballs, or have your head grow a full hat size in just a couple of years as Barry Bonds did after taking steroids and human growth hormones to break Hank Aaron’s legitimate home run title, but just don’t lose when you do it.
There are strange boundaries though, don’t bet on baseball games you’re not playing in as Pete Rose did. They’ll keep you out of the Hall of Fame for gambling.
Marketing, media, the sport itself, and myriad other factors determine whether you can “get away with it” or not.
America is a maelstrom of odd rules, slanted viewpoints, twisted logic, and gray areas when it comes to something you profess to believe in regardless of what is actually happening. We’ve come to accept it in politics where the guy screaming “family values” wants us to ignore his many divorces, infidelities, and corrupt business deals. When confronted, it’s easy to defend by claiming that everyone else does it, so why not me?
Politics is in many ways a sporting venue. Every election boils down to getting 50.1 percent of the vote. That’s just enough to beat the other guy, appease the nutjobs on the right or left of your party, and remain in office, a very lucrative office for most professional politicians.
Sadly, sports are also a cloudy mirror of society as a whole.
Whether sport reflects society or society reflects sport is an argument enjoyed by many, with a substantial number of doctoral theses written in agreement or disagreement with the idea.
No matter your political stance, it can be argued that the two most influential forces in reducing systemic racism in America have come from institutions that once reveled in bigotry.
Sports and the military were the first institutions that allowed someone besides a white man to achieve equal footing.
The story of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 is well known, though Hollywood’s version is suspect, as films always are in an accurate description of events.
Robinson magically appears for the Dodgers in 1947 without much background for the then 28-year-old infielder.
Hollywood left out a few tidbits of Robinson’s athletic career. He was a four-sport letterman for UCLA after earning an associate’s degree from Pasadena Junior College. Robinson still holds the single season record of 12.2 yards per carry as one of the Bruin’s running backs. He also lettered in basketball and won the NCAA long jump championship in 1940 with a leap of 24 feet 10 ¼ inches. It wasn’t his best jump, as a junior college freshman in Pasadena he broke his older brother Mack’s record with a jump of 25 feet 6 ½ inches.
Mack broke the world record in the 200-meter dash at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 but finished second behind Jesse Owens.
The world of sports and the military merged with Jackie Robinson at the spearpoint of the movement during World War II.
With a bachelor’s degree from UCLA, the US Army had problems assigning Robinson. Black soldiers were only allowed to serve as cooks, truck drivers, or laborers in most units. An intelligent, educated, black man with many talents created a major problem for the racist policies of the American military.
Robinson’s application for Officer Candidate School (OCS) was stalled repeatedly by bigoted red tape. It took the intervention of heavyweight champion Joe Louis who was an Army sergeant assigned to the same base as Robinson, to get the process moving, but racism followed the duo throughout their respective military careers.
Hollywood portrayed Robinson as a placid, quiet man who accepted the bigotry, name-calling, and blatant racism of his era with patience, but he was far from that.
Robinson, and Louis as well, were often ordered to sit in the back of military buses, to move to the rear of auditoriums, and weren’t allowed to eat with white troops who they outranked. They didn’t always obey those orders and Robinson was court-martialed on trumped-up charges before being found innocent on all counts by a jury of nine white officers.
Those were the politics of the day. Politics that sadly remain in the hearts of many Americans.
In July 1948, President Harry Truman formally desegrated the military with executive order 9981. It wasn’t well received but coincided with the arrival of black baseball players the year before.
Sports, and the military, thanks to the efforts of men like Robinson, and white men such as Dodgers owner Branch Ricky, and manager Leo Durocher opened the gates of change when few politicians would step up to the plate, but politicians never do.
Sports, good and bad, reflect the good and bad of our daily lives. We love the winner and often ignore the loser, but every game has one of each, no matter how many excuses some make.
We have scoreboards for a reason. If you don’t know the score, you’ll never know where you stand.
Those that cheat, whether by using illegal performance-enhancing drugs, eavesdropping on the opposing team’s communication, or by altering equipment don’t deserve respect, or even the slightest admiration.
Those that achieve, against long odds, are the ones deserving acclaim.
In 2000, Sports Illustrated named Michael Jordan the greatest American athlete of the 20th century. You couldn’t argue his skills as a basketball player, but he was also a Triple-A baseball player, and a PGA-level golfer, all achievements well above the average.
Still, I didn’t agree with the selection. Another man, from earlier in the century came in second.
Jim Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox tribe was the runner-up.
In my opinion, his skills as a baseball, football, and track athlete earned the top spot as the greatest American athlete of all time. He too faced incredible bigotry, discrimination and won anyway.
Sports and society, society, and sports, they tumble together down the steep hillside of public opinion in a never-ending spiral.