Friday, August 07, 2009

Cycling, Swimming not American enough

Let’s face it. No matter how many Tours Lance Armstrong wins (has won) and no matter how many Olympic gold medals Michael Phelps hauls from the pool, Cycling (yes, the big C was used here on purpose to set apart the sport of cycling from something you do when you hop on your road bike for a ride down to New Belgium for some free beer) and Swimming (big S used here to set apart competitive swimming from what most people refer to as “swimming” which, more or less, means drowning to the author) will never be mainstream sports.

The greatest obstruction to these sports becoming popular in America, like they are elsewhere in the world, is precisely that they are popular outside of America. We can’t put our decidedly American stamp on either of these sports. The best we can do is to wait around for a Lance Armstrong or a Michael Phelps to popularize the sport here and to piss off a whole bunch of foreigners over there. Although these prodigies of their respective sports heighten interest for the sport in America, they inevitably increase, to some degree, dislike of America, which isn’t the best of trade-offs. I am not talking about the hatred of America that is thrown around in political discussions to denote the world’s general distaste of American foreign policy and involvement in the world. I am talking about the way Serbians must really dislike America because it is the country that produced Phelps, a swimmer who humiliated Milorad Cavic in the finals of the 100m Butterfly at the Beijing Olympics, a race Cavic lost by .01 seconds because he doesn’t know how to finish with his head down (chump). And the way those same fans must hate us more now that Phelps had an even more decisive victory over Cavic at the world championships in Rome. I am talking about the way fans of Jan Ullrich must feel about the country that produced Lance Armstrong, a rider who, for years, took Tour victories that would have very likely belonged to Ullrich. Not only that, but the term “The Look” was named after Armstrong’s stare at Ullrich before a big climb in the 2001 Tour. Armstrong’s stare is generally believed to mean, by Phil Liggett of Tour de France broadcast fame, as “Well, here I go. Are you coming or not. And the answer is, not.”

There you have it, in 85 previous Tours, an American (Greg Lemond) had won the Tour three times. An American Tour de France champion then was as unheard of as the U.S. soccer team playing in the final of the World Cup now. In addition to that, the victor was a cancer survivor, which, to his fans, is testament to his badassness and, to the French media, a sure sign that Armstrong is a doper. Souring the French media’s attitude toward Armstrong even more was the unfortunate timing of his dominance. These victories came at a time which Americans were hell bent on renaming French fries, freedom fries because of someone’s dumb belief that being patriotic in the post-9/11 world also meant hating the French.

And, as far as Phelps goes, he brought chagrin to most of the world because an American became the most decorated Olympian of all time. Thus contributing to the common frustration: can’t Americans be second best at something? We most certainly are and, often, we are even worse than second but it is especially hard to focus on those sports (Archery, Curling, Table Tennis, Soccer, Rowing, and Equestrian, to name a few) during such dominant American performances.

Please forgive the tangent, but I felt it necessary to define “dislike of America” in the sense that I am using it here. I might not have done that for you, but I shall digress to the original point I was making. Despite the recent success of the two aforementioned athletes, Cycling and Swimming will never be wildly popular in America because they aren’t American enough.

The Tour de France is still, annoyingly so, referred to as the Tour de Lance by ESPN. We get it ESPN, you love Lance Armstrong, but would the sport even occupy that measly two minutes of SportsCenter that you give it if Armstrong wasn’t racing? My guess is no. It would maybe get a minute and that’s doing the sport and the tradition of Cycling a disservice. Instead we are treated to another minute of coverage about Brett Favre’s possible millionth comeback or another “amazing” baseball catch by an outfielder laying out for a ball, which happens a few times a day for as long as the endless baseball season goes on for and is treated by SportsCenter as a top ten play of the day, everyday. If Cycling fans held a ray of hope that the sport would be respected and treated as such by mainstream media types like ESPN, that hope was crushed when you heard SportsCenter anchors consistently slaughter the names of some of the sport’s most famous athletes (Mikel Astarloza, Ronaldo Nocentini, Fabian Cancellara). These aren’t even the hardest names, but if ESPN took the time to watch one day of the Tour, they would likely hear every one of these names pronounced correctly. In addition, we don’t get consistent reports about the other Americans in the race. I wouldn’t be shocked if most Americans couldn’t name more than the obvious American rider.

Swimming has recently been in the news because of the world championships taking place in Rome. Actually, let me rephrase that. Swimming has only been in the news because Phelps, firstly, lost a race and, secondly, broke his own world record mark in the 200-meter butterfly (in only a leg suit, nonetheless…what a rough ass). Phelps’ accomplishment last year in Beijing was superhuman. However, the media, and most of America, now blows a gasket when Phelps doesn’t win every single race he is in, even if it is the preliminary or semi-final rounds of a competition. Yes, a second-place finish for Phelps is a rarity, but we are fed this piece of information as if this was a failure, a sign of Phelps aging, or a direct consequence of him taking one photographed hit off a bong. The only real news, for fans of the sport, when Phelps receives heaps of print and coverage in the media, is that America doesn’t know anything about swimming.

I am willing to bet that we would have heard a lot more about Phelps and swimming if he hadn’t beat Cavic this last time around. The media would question Phelps’ fitness and swimming dominance, but there is no need for anyone’s fitness and prowess in the pool to be in question if they have only been training for six months. We seem awfully eager to forget that Phelps literally trained nonstop for two years for the Beijing games. But all that doesn’t matter. Phelps’ recent second-place finish is proof that when you lose in America, even once, your skills are immediately called into question. Sometime in the past I have written about America’s obsession with celebrities and our eagerness to tear them down at the slightest mistake, ah yes, I remember now. I was writing about Phelps and the now infamous picture of him taking a hit from a bong. It was in February of 2009 and I wrote this:

When someone is at the top of their game we apply standards to them that are more fit for a god. We expect perfection. That way, when they fall, we are justified in our criticisms of them. Our name-calling is justified. Our essays, dressed in scholarly diction in order to disguise the author’s true motivation, are justified. In a sick way, talking about someone else’s grand mistake makes us feel better about our own. We will go a long way to pat ourselves on the back.

America wants American winners. Unfortunately, for Cycling and Swimming, it doesn’t help when some foreigner can win the biggest competition/s of the year. We were recently led to believe by some media outlets, not all, that a third-place finish for Lance Armstrong in this year’s Tour de France was somehow a disappointment. The dominant American attitude toward these sports greatly contrasts with say, European attitudes toward sports because in Europe it is possible to run into an enthusiastic Real Madrid fan in the middle of London. Also, in Europe, you won’t find as much discrimination against sports that weren’t invented in a respective fan’s country or against athletes who do not share their nationality with the fan, making for more enthusiastic and educated sports fans. With that said, fans across the pond who favor athletes from their country still outnumber fans that don’t, but that doesn’t mean they won’t follow the sport when a countryman isn’t the current champion. And it also doesn’t mean that they can’t name the whole roster of a foreign team, which they may not even support.

I believe there is one exception to the attitudes referenced above. This exception is Golf (capitalized for roughly the same reasons as Cycling and Swimming). I write this because it is possible for SportsCenter to give a lengthy report on a golf tournament even when an American doesn’t win. Naturally, it is assumed that the popularity of Tiger Woods has contributed, incalculably so, to America’s interest in golf at the international level, but the sport remains wildly popular with Americans, even if someone named Angel Cabrera wins The Masters. I suspect, but I am not willing to say conclusively, that this popularity is a product of past American golf greats like Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, and Arnold Palmer. The massive amount of space in this country doesn’t hurt golf’s chances either. There is room aplenty for golf courses and, despite their cost to build and maintain, they seem to sprout up in some of the most absurd locations. I wish Cycling and Swimming had that problem, but despite having thousands of miles of paved road (flat or mountainous) and acres and acres of land for pools to be built on, the sports are treated like green-bean casserole. Everyone says they love it, but really, no one indulges more than once a year. As for Cycling and Swimming, I don’t know what fuels the phobia, but my best guess after spending years in the pool as an athlete and on the deck as a coach, is that people are afraid of the Speedo. These same people harbor a mythical belief in its power to emasculate men.

In the end, I suppose Cycling and Swimming just aren’t American enough and, since Armstrong and Phelps aren’t enough to make their sports mainstream, we are generations and many, many great athletes away from a story about Cycling or Swimming trumping another "great" baseball catch on SportsCenter’s Top Plays.

1 comment:

R. Larson said...

Ha. You hit every main point I was thinking of while I was reading. I laugh out loud anytime Tiger is said to be in a slump becuase he is not winning majors. And it's annoying when a winner like Stewart Cink might as well get 2nd place becuase America wanted Tom Watson to win the British Open. A winner is a winner.

You are right. If Lance didn't do so well in his 7 tours, America would say Tour de whaaa? The coverage increased after he won about 4 I think.

Its funny that people don't recognize Swimming and Cycling becuase after trying them, they are two of the hardest things I've done! Any fool can play basketball semi well but swimming was a real challenge. A 3-week bike race doesn't seem very easy either. To me, that is more masculine and badass then say, NFL, NBA combined (NHL is pretty badass).