If not now, when?

One American woman. Twenty acres and a 1650 farmhouse in Tuscany. Random introspection and hilarity, depending on the day.

27 July 2005

The Mania and the Lessons: Lance Armstrong

He has a cult of his very own, like a religion or a god of sorts - one of the ancient, magnificent Greek Gods - whose powers are humanesque but taken to incredible new heights: Lance Armstrong. And though I was desperately sad to be out of town during Bicycle-Built-For-Two's annual Tour De France (Lance!) soiree, I was truly amazed at the media coverage of the event, even in the US.

Because, you see, it takes a *lot* to get the US interested in what are otherwise sports 'For the Rest of the World': Soccer, Cycling, Cricket (okay, that one hasn't hit yet), Rugby... (even the Olympics, when watched through the filter of the US Newsmedia, only covers sports that OUR athletes compete in. It's a completely different games to watch them abroad!)

But having one of our very own continue to crush the competition - year after year, against incredible statistical odds - yes, the spirit of overcoming the greatest of odds resulting in the American domination of what is otherwise a primarily European sport, THAT gets people motivated. And there's the heartstring-tugging story (complete with beautiful children in yellow sundresses!) to go with it. And no great American passion is complete without easily accessible tchotchke -- to publicly display your dedication: (Witness other fads where people can show off their passion for something: the Baby on Board signs. The pink ribbon. The POWMIA pins. The support-our-troops yellow ribbon, round the ole' oak tree. 'These Colors Don't Run' (usually accompanied by BushCheney04) bumperstickers. The rainbow flag. The veterans poppies. And so on.) Yup, our 'show it to me' cause-driven society has jumped on the bandwagon of the yellow LIVESTRONG armband bracelet, also - and I pray that the money really does go to cancer research (if you're going to buy one, buy it through the foundation so you're sure!): there has been $14 million donated so far by the Lance Armstrong Foundation. I applaud that, but it's not enough. I add my voice to the millions who have asked 'why on earth is Cancer still an issue? Why can't we find a cure?' It defies scientific logic that this disease continues to plague our society.

And that, I suppose, is the mystique of Lance Armstrong. He himself defies logic. He embodies a spirit of survival, of domination, of perserverance, of triumph over the odds. We would all like to believe that his is the 'great American spirit'. And perhaps, for some, it is. But not as many as we would like to believe.

I came across this article by Thomas Friedman (who I worship as a brilliant political and cultural commentator, not to mention a writer who weaves logic and fluidity and international affairs into such clear and compelling articles!), that comments on the Lance-ing of America, and the ugly opposite side of that coin. I paste its' text here because after a week, the NYT site will make you pay to read it... and it's too good to miss:

Learning From Lance
There is no doubt that Lance Armstrong's seventh straight victory in the Tour de France, which has prompted sportswriters to rename the whole race the Tour de Lance, makes him one of the greatest U.S. athletes of all time. What I find most impressive about Armstrong, besides his sheer willpower to triumph over cancer, is the strategic focus he brings to his work, from his prerace training regimen to the meticulous way he and his cycling team plot out every leg of the race. It is a sight to behold. I have been thinking about them lately because their abilities to meld strength and strategy - to thoughtfully plan ahead and to sacrifice today for a big gain tomorrow - seem to be such fading virtues in American life.

Sadly, those are the virtues we now associate with China, Chinese athletes and Chinese leaders. Talk to U.S. business executives and they'll often comment on how many of China's leaders are engineers, people who can talk to you about numbers, long-term problem-solving and the national interest - not a bunch of lawyers looking for a sound bite to get through the evening news. America's most serious deficit today is a deficit of such leaders in politics and business.

John Mack, the new C.E.O. at Morgan Stanley, initially demanded in the contract he signed June 30 that his total pay for the next two years would be no less than the average pay package received by the C.E.O.'s at Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns. If that average turned out to be more than $25 million, Mr. Mack was to be paid at least that much. He eventually backed off that demand after a howl of protest, but it struck me as the epitome of what is wrong in America today.

We are now playing defense. A top C.E.O. wants to be paid not based on his performance, but based on the average of his four main rivals! That is like Lance Armstrong's saying he will race only if he is guaranteed to come in first or second, no matter what his cycling times are on each leg.

I recently spent time in Ireland, which has quietly become the second-richest country in the E.U., first by going through some severe belt-tightening that meant everyone had to sacrifice, then by following that with a plan to upgrade the education of its entire work force, and a strategy to recruit and induce as many global high-tech companies and researchers as possible to locate in Ireland. The Irish have a plan. They are focused. They have mobilized business, labor and government around a common agenda. They are playing offense.

Wouldn't you think that if you were president, after you'd read the umpteenth story about premier U.S. companies, like Intel and Apple, building their newest factories, and even research facilities, in China, India or Ireland, that you'd summon the top U.S. business leaders to Washington to ask them just one question: "What do we have to do so you will keep your best jobs here? Make me a list and I will not rest until I get it enacted."

And if you were president, and you had just seen more suicide bombs in London, wouldn't you say to your aides: "We have got to reduce our dependence on Middle East oil. We have to do it for our national security. We have to do it because only if we bring down the price of crude will these countries be forced to reform. And we should want to do it because it is clear that green energy solutions are the wave of the future, and the more quickly we impose a stringent green agenda on ourselves, the more our companies will lead innovation in these technologies."

Instead, we are about to pass an energy bill that, while it does contain some good provisions, will make no real dent in our gasoline consumption, largely because no one wants to demand that Detroit build cars that get much better mileage. We are just feeding Detroit the rope to hang itself. It's assisted suicide. I thought people went to jail for that?

And if you were president, would you really say to the nation, in the face of the chaos in Iraq, that "if our commanders on the ground say we need more troops, I will send them," but that they had not asked? It is not what the generals are asking you, Mr. President - it is what you are asking them, namely: "What do you need to win?" Because it is clear we are not winning, and we are not winning because we have never made Iraq a secure place where normal politics could emerge.

Oh, well, maybe we have the leaders we deserve. Maybe we just want to admire Lance Armstrong, but not be Lance Armstrong. Too much work. Maybe that's the wristband we should be wearing: Live wrong. Party on. Pay later.

(And let me end by saying that if I had an account at Morgan Stanley, it would be closed today. But of course, I'm not wealthy enough for that, and I'm guessing John Mack wouldn't care one way or the other - and neither, probably, do most of the people who DO have accounts there. I fervently hope that Lance's gazillions of dollars aren't in the hands of a John Mack, either. Because winning is one thing, but living the principles is another thing entirely.)


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