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Cycling and the American sports consciousness

From issue 6 • Words by John Madruga with images from Yuzuru Sunada

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“Just win!” It’s the mantra of the most popular American professional sports. For football, baseball and basketball players and coaches—as well fans that focus meticulously on their favorite team or player, passionately (even irrationally at times) cheering them on to victory—nothing else seems to matter. Athletes learn early on to equate their competitive effort to that popular, and wholly American, dictum: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” The sentiment is deep-rooted and continuously reinforced by professional athletes who are often reduced to, as writer David Foster Wallace says, “shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered in post-contest interviews,” most of which have to do with the sole subject of winning and losing.

Is it simply impossible for professional athletes to think or talk about their performance with any real depth of feeling or meaning, since their purpose is to be present, act and react on the playing field—and not to comment? To contemplate the performance, talk about how it felt to make the winning shot or what it means to win a critical game, may be outside the realm of doing, apart from the game and therefore of little use to those who compete. What results in the way of commentary generally reduces what takes place on the court, field, course or track to a simple win-lose equation. Coaches, and even fans, are also drawn into the same kind of lifeless commentary.

Kobe Bryant of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, says this about playing during the regular season: “I have been saying all season, not winning a championship would mean failure. Now the situation is that simple.” Coaches are no different: Jim Harbaugh, the new head coach of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, states his promise to fans for the upcoming season at his first official press conference with the team. His message is delivered with a single-minded declaration: “Losing is not an option,” Harbaugh says. And often the commentary of fans reflects this mindset as well. For the Philadelphia Phillies, an elite MLB team that is routinely picked by baseball insiders to win its division and make a bid for the World Series, fans can bring an intense, all-or-nothing level of expectation to the team. One fan website clearly analyzes the pitching staff for the upcoming season: “Given the makeup of [the Phillies’] pitching rotation, most observers are expecting domination. Total domination. Anything less would be seen as a failure by most.” For athletes, coaches and fans, the parameters of American sports maintain a very specific boundary, and within that space is a clear-cut line: either win or fail.

All athletes compete to win, and fans are drawn to watch, to discover who will be there at the end and how it will play out. This inherent narrative quality within all sports is what holds our attention; it reveals the mystery to the one question we have in our minds before any competition begins: Who will win and what will it look like? Add to this drama the additional pressure of playing in the playoffs or finals—a single-elimination, “sudden-death” situation—having endured the inevitable pain and pitfalls of the regular season and facing the ultimate victory like a world championship—and the entire event grows exponentially more intense. The stakes are raised, and so is our interest, in discovering which team, which athlete, will “just win.”

But is it as simple as that, to say athletes, coaches and fans are only motivated by winning? Is this the one thing that drives players to compete, to endure the pain of the physical and mental effort all sports require? Is winning the only thing on the minds of Chicago Bears fans as they sit outside in sub-freezing temperatures for hours to cheer their team to victory? Is winning what motivates Lakers fans, many of who spend as much time texting/tweeting/emailing/talking on their cell phones during the game as they do watching what is happening on the court? Are the thousands of cycling fans who travel the heights and distances to see riders ascend the steepest mountain pass just thinking of winning?

The Collective
Winning may be the stated goal of every athlete, team or coach, and the go-to response of fans, but each sport is also driven by a specific overarching energy and mindset which competitors, coaches and fans create and work to keep alive and well. And so sports also provide an opportunity to exert that particular influence on an opposing player or team. It’s no surprise, for example, that the decorum associated with golf and tennis (both on the course/court and in the viewing audience) is something nonexistent in American football, where the collective (team) goal of winning is achieved through gladiator-like aggression, a man-to-man contest of physical force, strength and stamina. Here players eliminate the object of punishment—the golf/tennis ball that is pounded into play—and instead choose to pound on one another. Because this is the nature of the sport, in this environment winning is achieved through an altogether different level of consciousness, which supports fans’ deeper collective need: to exert their superiority, to dominate, to be more aggressive, stronger, faster and more adept than the competition—and to do it with the ruthless, brutal and hardnosed energy that is unique to football. In short, the known collective desire is to win, but that desire is fueled by another desire: to kick the other guy’s/team’s ass in the process.

It may be Bears vs. Packers or Dodgers vs. Giants for example, as each team vies for dominance on the field, but the game itself extends well beyond the stadium. Each team wants to exert its own particular collective ego, region, tradition and social status (big market vs. small market; white collar vs. blue collar) on the opposition. Sure, individual players may make a great run or catch, but it’s the opposition of collective forces away from the field of play that really fuel the battle. Author Ekhardt Tolle describes it this way:

A collective ego manifests the same characteristics as the personal ego, such as the need for conflict and enemies, the need for more, the need to be right against others who are wrong, and so on. Sooner or later, the collective will come into conflict with other collectives, because it unconsciously seeks conflict and it needs opposition to define its boundary and thus its identity. Its members will then experience the suffering that inevitably comes in the wake of any ego-motivated action. At that point, they may wake up and realize that their collective has a strong element of insanity.

March 31, 2011—opening day of the baseball season at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. The Dodgers had just won the game, a close victory over their West Coast rival, the San Francisco Giants, when the collective ego reached the boiling point of insanity for a few unconscious (unaware) fans. As Giants fan Bryan Stow searched for a taxi in the parking lot after the game, he was attacked without warning. Sports Illustrated reported the following:

Police said the two men began taunting three men in Giants gear with expletives as thousands of baseball fans left the stadium after Thursday night’s 2-1 Dodger victory, Detective T.J. Moore said. The Giants fans tried to distance themselves from their assailants, and two made it away from them, but one was struck with fists on the back of the head and as he fell, his head hit the ground in a parking lot on the third-base side of the ballpark. Both attackers then kicked the victim, who suffered a head injury, then ran.

What did this have to do with anything related to the game itself? Nothing, of course. It has to do with our increasing inability to see, understand and feel what is essential in all human relationships: that no one is better than another, that the external differences of region, social position, religion or politics have nothing to do with one’s real identity. And yet, what some see in others are only these external forms (the fans wearing the opposing team’s uniform or hat) and thereby declare them a personal enemy, an entity that must be eliminated. What’s the threat? What’s being fought over? Anyone who unconsciously identifies with a collective to the point that he/she fails to recognize the humanity in others can’t feel themselves—they are numb to their own human nature. In his book, Among the Thugs, Bill Buford described this in relationship to the culture of violence surrounding European football fans: “It is a lad culture without mystery, so deadened that it uses violence to wake itself up. It pricks itself so that it has feeling, burns its flesh so that it has smell.”

I realize that these are extreme examples and in no way represent the majority of American sports fans, however I wonder if there is a pervasive American sports consciousness, some overarching set of values, emotions or beliefs that naturally exclude cycling from our national scene. If our most popular sports here in the states are fueled by a type of egoic aggression, a powerful underlying need for dominance and destruction (“kill ‘em,” “kick their ass”), it’s no wonder that a new sport like mixed martial arts (MMA), or cage fighting, as it is also called, significantly grows in popularity while cycling continues to struggle for more recognition.

Appreciation of Effort
While the most popular American sports maintain an aggressive and myopic “win or go home” focus, it’s the competitive spirit that seems to really fuel cycling. This may sound simplistic, but it’s true. Cycling is a sport in which participants and fans seem to appreciate the effort, the sacrifice and suffering as being extremely valuable in itself—as important as winning, if not more so. And so, the atmosphere is more festive than combative, and the fan support is for a person to succeed and not for a collective need or desire beyond the race. Therefore, Cavendish might be applauded for finishing within the time limit of a brutal mountain stage, a young rider will be recognized for being in the break (even if for a short time), and the domestique, who has absolutely no chance of winning, will be appreciated for working for the team and finishing at the bottom on GC. It’s the fundamental recognition and appreciation of every form of effort that makes cycling unique, and perhaps this is one reason why it doesn’t translate all that well to the general population of American sports fans.

At the conclusion of Jani Brajkovic’s victory at the 2010 Critérium du Dauphiné, Chris Horner had this to say about the performance of his teammate, Thomas Vaitkus, who did not finish the race: “Vaitkus didn’t make the time cut and he looked so depressed and so unhappy the next morning at breakfast. But I’m telling you, he was amazing all week with the effort he put in for Jani. It truly broke my heart to see him sad and upset after all he had contributed during the week. He’d had a spectacular week, and by all means if he hadn’t ridden that well we could not have won. There is no doubt about it. If he hadn’t come back time and time again we would not have won. If on any day he had stayed in the gruppetto we would have lost. But he didn’t do that. He fought to come back to ride the whole rest of the stage on the front, and so when he dropped out on the second-to-last stage because he missed the time cut, some people can look wrongly at that. But I look at it as an amazing ride.”

What Horner describes is not unusual in any way, it’s the kind of thinking that defines cycling. There’s not only recognition of Vaitkus’s effort but empathy for what he went through in the race, and how he had to sacrifice so much to ultimately not finish. Think of the guys sitting at the end of the bench on an NBA team, some of the best players in the world, but totally unknown to the fans. Think of the third-string players in the NFL—all freakishly talented elite athletes who very few people know about. Many of these guys not only don’t finish a game, they hardly are ever given the chance to start one. The most popular American sports are star-driven, centered on a select few athletes, while cycling is powered more by the peloton, the pack. As Armstrong reminded Contador at the conclusion to the 2009 Tour de France: “If I were him I’d drop this drivel and start thanking his team. [Without] them, he doesn’t win.” Armstrong added, “A champion is also measured on how much he respects his teammates and opponents.”

The Body and Suffering
In order to appreciate the effort of an athlete there has to be an awareness of the body, how it adapts to conditions, responds to pressure, moves, breathes, endures. David Foster Wallace makes this point clear, as he writes:

Of course, in men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their ‘love’ of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc.

This, to me, is another important point of difference between cycling and popular American sports. Yes, to see Michael Jordan float in to the lane, hang suspended in time as he moves between players, changes shape and lay the ball into the basket reminds us of our human potential. Watching the best athletes perform often inspires us to ask, “How can a human do that?” How can he make that shot, catch that pass, climb that mountain, hit that pitch? What is great about us asking ourselves these questions is that in asking we are no longer staring at the scoreboard, searching for an outcome (“who will win?”) or identified with the insanity of a collective group. Instead, what is noticed and appreciated is the effort of the individual, the grace and beauty within the effort.

Cycling reveals the body like no other sport; it’s a kind of physical and emotional continuum of changing factors to which the rider must always adapt. The power of the sprinter, the endurance of the climber, the solitude of the time trialists, the craftiness of the escape artist, the fearlessness of the descender—these qualities live in every rider and are on display for us to see. And within all these qualities, there is a the recognition of suffering, what Buddhism views as the universal condition of mankind. So, cycling respects the body in a context that is simply not part of the mindset (consciousness) of our most popular American sports; it brings us back to this fundamental aspect of being human, and maybe that’s why it has never firmly taken hold in the ego-driven, win-at-all-costs world of American football, basketball or baseball. To speak of the suffering of athletes is never part of the conversation when it comes to these sports, but the awareness of it in cycling is always there—firmly residing in our hearts and minds. Maybe this is why we ride, why we watch. Because there is grace in suffering, and because to witness another suffer (and endure that suffering) reminds us of ourselves and of our origins.