The other Charlotte and I got so mired in the Democratic convention last week that we neglected to congratulate Lance Armstrong for winning his sixth Tour de France in a row. Many best wishes, Lance! The Tour de France is no ordinary bicycle race, either, but a three-week, 2,000-mile endurance test through rain, sleet, searing sun, and mountainous terrain.
And Armstrong was no ordinary cyclist. As an American, he had to take the heat, not just from the weather, but from his America-hating European fellow riders. Cycling through France was, in a sense, cycling through the belly of the beast. German spectators booed, spit on him, and verbally abused him. Other cycling fans charged the Texan with using performance-enhancing drugs–even though Armstrong has never failed a drug test and denies ever having used performance-boosting substances. All this on top of battling the ravages of cancer that doctors told him eight years ago he had less than a 50 percent chance of surviving. And Armstrong’s wasn’t just an individual win but a victory for his U.S. Postal Service team. Lance, it was great to see you and your teammates beat the bicycle pants off those rude and whining Euros!
As might be expected, European cycling fans were less than enthusiastic about Armstrong’s dauntless will to win, which desplayed a little too much American simplisme for their tastes. At the Weekly Standard, Munich correspondent Emily Berns compares the Euro-snobs to the haughty Cambridge dons in the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire who look down their noses at the Jewish student and runner Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) for striving too hard for an Olympics medal.
“After [Armstrong] achieved his record-breaking title, a BBC reporter went out of his way to rank the American biker below several past Tour greats. During the three-week race, rumors of drug-taking were revived by the French and others, though the five-time champion and cancer survivor had never failed a drug test. On the German TV station I watched, Armstrong’s early wins in the mountains were attributed to his team members’ assistance, his dominance in the two individual time trials was played down, his rivals–no matter how visibly inferior–were lavished with praise and attention while the real star was virtually ignored. When Armstrong snatched a last-second victory from a German biker in a stage he did not need to win, a stunned German commentator struggled for words to describe the Texan.’He’s so . . . ambitious,’ he said finally, echoing the Cambridge dons’ distaste….
“On one point, at least, Armstrong’s European critics are right. Striving for success, like following one’s dream, is a quintessentially American trait. Taken together, the two have made millionaire moguls of uneducated immigrants, powerful politicians of low-born nobodies, world-famous inventors of basement tinkerers, and great sports champions of disadvantaged youths like Armstrong. The natural home for ambitious dreamers, whatever their nationality, remains the United States.
“In Europe, as British author J.K. Rowling experienced when her Harry Potter books began to earn serious money, too much success, like too much popularity, is held to be suspect. Here a high degree of competitiveness is regarded as distasteful or unseemly. Ambition shouldn’t be too raw or the will to win too strong. Americans, on the other hand, see competitiveness not as a dirty word but as a natural accompaniment to achievement. We see achievement itself as something to be celebrated, especially if it is hard-won. Yet our foreign critics are mistaken when they imply that American achievers seek to win at all costs. The truth is more that ambitious Americans are driven–truly driven–not only to do their best but to prove their worth time and again.”
Yes–and that’s why we hope, Lance–even though you’ve said this Tour de France may be your last–that we’ll see you in France this time next year showing off your hard-won and well-deserved achievement.