Monday, 11 July 2005

One for Buzz Aldrin.

Along with le Tour de France, two very different but inextricably entwined stories will come to their conclusions on the 24th of July 2005.

One the story of an average man overcoming great adversity, and rising to dominate his profession to an extent unprecedented in history. The story of a man who is as revered as he is disliked all over the world. His successful fight against debilitating and mortal illness inspires devotion, and his impersonal, machine like and extended domination of his sport fuels discontent. There are two kinds of people in this world - those who love Lance Armstrong, and those who despise him. The other story is strikingly different. It consists mostly of frustration, criticism and bad luck. Don’t get me wrong, Jan Ullrich is a great cyclist and a very successful man by any standards, but with 5 second places (3 of them to Armstrong) after being one of the youngest winners of the tour in 1997, a tendency to come into the season slightly overweight, and consistent failure to do justice to his talent, History will judge him harshly.

But then, History is a bitch.
It is she who has decreed that the difference between being 'there' and being 'almost there' is the same as the difference between immortality and oblivion. She bestows her favours upon those who court her. The 'big' people. People who say the things that she considers right, people who fight and win enough battles that she considers to be important, people who manage to put upon themselves a veneer of goodness and invincibility. She cares nothing for the rest.

If Armstrong wins his 7th tour on the trot, he might deserve every accolade and every superlative bestowed upon him, but that will cause everything else, the daily heroism of so many men on the tour, the brave, the resilient, the stoic, to not only be forgotten, but under the ubiquitous shadow of that celebrated achievement, also belittled. In the frantic celebrations that will follow, with everyone scrambling to outdo everyone else in congratulating the champion, inventing new words, spending millions of dollars on congratulatory advertisements, who will have the time or the inclination to remember the brave Erik Dekker at the fag end of his career on a long breakaway, refusing to give in, refusing even to look back at the chasing peloton led by the sprinter's teams, the young Nicholas Portal, from a different team, weak and exhausted but helping Dekker all he can, doing his time at the front to give Dekker some rest, sticking to the task for no reason other than character and pride, the spectacular ride of Mike Rassmusen who rode 167 km all alone on a average mountain stage and won it, the resilience of Christophe Moreau and Jens Voigt as they tried to chase him down, the spirit that caused Moreau to stop when Voigt had a puncture, and the countless, countless other examples of all that is good in man that the Tour throws up with such breathtaking regularity ?

People will talk about how dominant Armstrong was even on his last tour, passing his main rival Jan Ullrich in the time trial on the first day after starting with a one minute deficit, and not a thought will be spared for the pain, anguish and despair of a proud man with his last chance to make amends and pull something back, as he saw himself being overtaken and left behind.

A win for Jan Ullrich, on the other hand, will force history to look at the other men who rode with Armstrong, it will add a huge amount to what will otherwise degenerate into a long paean to the praise and glory of one man at the cost of all others. It will be a demonstration that not always will the favourite win and the mighty triumph. It will be reassuring to see the beleaguered and fallible triumph against the perfect. It is the same fight that you and me face everyday, the fight to overcome our faults, to justify our talent, to fulfil what we consider to be our destiny. It will add balance to scales that are tipped overwhelmingly towards those with success and power, and that strange blinkered vision that causes a man to achieve impossible things. It will bring a ray of hope to so many of us, who battle against overwhelming odds and stifling systems, against our own record of indolence and failure, against the unfair and cruel manner in which the world determines who deserves to be respected and who does not.

When Jan Ullrich rides out on to the Alps tomorrow, he rides not just against Armstrong, but against History. He rides not just for himself, but for all those of us who have had too much to do with the words 'imperfect', 'incomplete' and 'unfulfilled'.


Anonymous said...

Superb. I had to push back tears while reading it.

The popular support to Underdog is both justified to a certain extent and understandable.

Justified, since he is the one who needs encouragement, support. The habitual Winners do not depend on such external crutches, and make it rather clear through their mannerism. They are self sufficient.

Understandable, because majority always has more in common with the Underdog than with the Winner. Winner is a lonely person. So, popular support to Underdog, who is one from amongst the majority, is understandable.

What is of great interest, is to understand what the 'half second difference' between a gold & Silver medallist in a 100 mtr race; or 1 minute difference between Lance Armstrong & Jan Ulrich, represents.

It is toiling for unending hours when everybody else is sleeping; single minded pursuit of your goal many, times at the cost of your family & friends; pushing yourself when the last ounce of energy is spent. It is lifting yourself above the 'average', 'good' and 'excellent'. It is an unending fight against the 'gravity' of mediocrity. It is the triumph of mind over the body. It is very difficult and almost seems 'near impossible'. And that is why it is the ultimate victory. Worthy of recognition from 'History'. The only downside being it comes when you are lonely, away from the masses, and while you may still want to reach out to them, they recoil back as if you are an alien from Mars.

Psmith said...

True. thank you for your thoughts. If I know you, you might put your name along with your comment.
Thanks again.

Safari Al said...

i wish i could say something but i am clueless about the sports.

yeah...but i agree history is a bitch.

Anonymous said...

thats a magnificent piece which reeks of personal experience.but then we tend to assume we know abou jan ullrich.just maybe he might be content enough to compete for the sake of the sport.just maybe he has no regard for history,not even is we ordinary mortals who tend to simplify the model of life by bringing in parameters like winning,losing,and even'almost winning(/losing)'.these models are good but do they stand in front of men who have had to defeat these very definitions to come to where they stand today,maybe in their own eyes,or maybe those in the eyes of the public.
i am NOT .

DonWanObeKanobe said...

"If Armstrong wins his 7th tour ... the daily heroism of so many men on the tour, the brave, the resilient, the stoic, to not only be forgotten, but under the ubiquitous shadow of that celebrated achievement, also belittled."

Doesn't the fact that people like you write posts like this in fact give them a measure of recognition and prevent them from being condemned to obscurity? History will probably list them as mere footnotes on the Lance Armstrong page, though. But then, history is a bitch.

I was just wondering, though, about how far the tour really has come from its humble, and to be honest, dubious origins to its current multi-million dollar form.

Bravo, though. Even for someone like me who follows the tour with an amateur's knowledge, the post was moving.

Anonymous said...

History's probably unfair but isn't it ultimately about what people want to remember?
There is always an element of the dramatic about victory - it has the peculiar ability to reach out to people, even of succeeding generations and whatever their convictions; the ability to sweep them out of their mundane lives and lift them momentarily to a higher plane of existence. Victory is inclusive - it transcends all barriers.
You spoke about each one of us having our own limitations, of having to live with the knowledge of a potential not fully realised.It's probably this very feeling of inadequacy that leads us to respect what is conventionally accepted as great and unique. For appreciating someone who has triumphed against their inner demons means acknowledging the presence pf one's own weaknesses, celebrating the tortuous climb of a person to the pinnacle of his profession means accepting that we ourselves are not where we ought to be - and probably never will be either.
At Wimbledon, the crowd generally throws itself behind the underdog - the unseeded player who has miraculously surmounted all sorts of obstacles to get where he is. But what goes down for posterity is the image of the Champion, lifting the trophy that is his by virtue of his genius and complete mastery of the sport. And we can sit back, content in the knowledge that the one who eventually triumphed was blessed with rare gifts, and therefore, it is through no fault of ours that we have not achieved that kind of success (which again is defined by society).
Acts like those you spoke about are indicative of the decency and sense of fairness inherent in all of us - certainly reassuring in times when the very word 'humanity' has almost ceased to have any significance. And yet, watching or hearing about such acts is an intensely private experience - a moment of reaffirming the belief that justice could still have a place in this world. But it is the majesty, the intense joy, the aura of victory and the burning ambition that is often behind it, which is what people revere.
History is not at fault.

Psmith said...

Point taken.

Well, I'm hoping Ullrich raises his game to make himself worthy of that which has eluded him, and thus illustrate how longstanding trends and habits can be changed and turned on their heads.

Symbolism that the majority will associate with.

Armstrong winning will be nothing more than a great farewell for him.

Anonymous said...

On second thoughts, what I said seems incredibly pessimistic, almost justifies mediocrity.
Maybe you are right.

ar15t0tle said...

history is a bitch, gem of an original thought;
history is also a mistress, a concubine of the winner,all human endeavour is coloured by outcome; Hitler could have been a god, Americans are angels and teachers-preachers despite roasting millions alive.
Mirza Ghalib once said " Bazeecha (garden) -ai- aatfaal (children) hai dunia mere aage, hoota hai shabo -roz- tamashaa mere aage;
excellent piece "One for Buzz Aldrin." pras keep the effort, keep thinking; I mean let thoughts happen to you

Psmith said...

Thanks aristotle. for instance, who will believe that the whole rigmarole about cleopatra being a promiscuous person of loose morals is merely roman propaganda since they were the one's who got to write the history books.

btw, I'd like to say this again, people, if I know you, please give some indication of your identity in your comment.

Anonymous said...

dude, you have written some moving and artistic miss the basic point of difference between the two people-desire.if ullrich really cared about the tour he wouldnt come in underprepared and overweight, he would have pushed himself more...talent was never a question. quite simply, armstrong cares more about it...that's why he has put his heart and his soul into this race for the last seven years and that's why the tour should be proud that he is their champion because all the qualities and contributions you say he diminishes, he actually enhances.
forget the fact that his story and his courage got millions interested in the sport where they saw the other stories play out...many years from now people will be saying,"god, that armstrong dude came back from life-threatening cancer to win the tour de france seven times,that race must be something special"...armstrong's triumph does not belong to him alone, it belongs to everyone who has ever overcome adversity to reach his dreams, it is a triumph of that most potent of weapons-the human spirit.watching him in action has been one of the great priveleges of my lifetime.

Anonymous said...

i agree with the anon senior.