As I believe John Kerry once said, I voted for Floyd Landis before I voted against him, and I slammed the French before I endorsed them. It’s not really a flip-flop. Not even an evolution. More like an addendum.
Two weeks after crowing about Floyd’s magnificent victory to extend American dominance in France’s national sporting event, we must acknowledge that the incredible Mr. Landis may have fudged a little on the rules. Thanks to an abnormally high spike in testosterone levels—through unnatural means, it appears, and timed, conveniently, for the day that Landis recorded what was hailed as the greatest ride in Tour de France history—the world’s most competitive Mennonite became the manliest man on two wheels.
All across this country last week, people had a national “Say it ain’t so, Joe” moment in the wake of the revelation of not one but two positive tests that will almost surely cost Landis his Tour title. But I see no reason to be apologetic or embarrassed.
The French are nothing if not philosophical about cheating. After all, in one of the few moves that could lead male American superpatriots to revert out of admiration to calling freedom fries by their original name, the French casually accommodated both the widow and the mistress at the funeral of Francois Mitterand.
Given their trademark jadedness, you’d assume the French would not only shrug at an American cheater but kiss him on both cheeks as one of their own.
The more difficult intellectual chore is on our side of the Atlantic: admitting that, despite their rudeness and smug air of superiority, we might be able to learn something about life and sports—What Would Jacques Do?—from these Gallic swine.
Perhaps the most surprising thing is that we still seem surprised when our celebrity athletes fall somewhere short of the standards of honor of a Grail knight. It happened three more times just in the past couple of weeks.
In hindsight, we all should have laughed out loud when Landis offered his own theory—he’d slugged down a bottle of Jack Daniel’s to drown his memories of a miserable performance that day—as to why his testosterone shot up to a level that would have made Chuck Norris look like a mama’s boy. Perhaps we bought the story because it came from a small-town fellow from Middle America, and it perfectly fit with our desire to believe that one of our Gary Coopers could whip any 10 Eurotrash dandies.
We wanted to believe that Justin Gatlin, who recently tied a world record in the 100-meter dash, represented a new generation of clean-training sprinters. Then he, too, turned up positive for performance-enhancing substances.
Considering that doping among world-class sprinters and cyclists in recent years has been about as ubiquitous as boofy big hair on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, it’s almost a miracle that we somehow allowed ourselves to believe that Floyd and Justin won without cheating.
Now they’ve even kicked a guy out of the World Open chess tournament for allegedly getting help during games from a computer.
As if those suspensions of disbelief needed a topper, many suckers seemed surprised to hear that two Oklahoma football players (!) had been getting plush paychecks for jobs (at a Sooner booster’s car dealership) where they never had to show up. Some of the hours when the OU players were on the clock—and you have to give the booster a respectful whistle for huevos grandes here—coincided with the football team’s practice times.
How anybody could even manage to raise an eyebrow in surprise over rule-breaking in college football, except perhaps at the heroic creativity of the circumventers, is one of those mysteries science cannot explain. And we’re not exactly talking about Tufts or Princeton. This was a story from Oklahoma, the school that brought us Barry Switzer, automatic weapons in the football dorm, coke-dealing quarterbacks and high school recruits who magically showed up on Signing Day in big red Cadillacs.
Yet, somehow, because OU Coach Bob Stoops had publicly avowed to run an honest program in Norman (which is a little like announcing your plans to reform the police department in Nuevo Laredo), even some hard-bitten Media Geniuses seemed to have accepted the notion that the whole operation was nearly as clean as a silicon chip factory.
We’re not this twitty about everything. We’re not surprised when some politician is caught accepting a bribe, or funneling public money into a project that benefits his family business. We just yawn. We expect it. We remind ourselves that Mark Twain explained long ago that America has no native criminal class except for Congress.
We assume that all politicians are crooks, except our own representatives. We assume that all corporate CEOs are Ken Lays-in-waiting, except the ones whose headquarters are in our own city. Maybe it’s that exceptionalism that explains our blind spot with athletes. They’re our guys. We root for them. We can imagine our scumbag rivals rooting for cheaters, but most of us can’t imagine it of ourselves.
We’re making progress on the cynicism front—which is to say that we’re becoming more like the French. Just this week NBA Commissioner David Stern proposed a developmental program in which elite high school players could hone their skills and attend academic classes. That’s a healthy step toward an honest admission that the current system turns colleges and high schools into skanky prostitutes.
It’s a good thing we’re beginning to recognize sports as little more than entertainment. If the NCAA and the doping cops today look about as effective as the Border Patrol, just wait. The days are coming soon when sophisticated medical technology will make it impossible to detect the presence of powerful performance enhancers in athletes’ systems.
When that day comes, we’ll all be forced to become French. OK, maybe we’re not ready to put Barry Bonds’ “trainer” and the Balco guys on the awards stand if Barry breaks Hank Aaron’s record.
But I suspect we’ll eventually arrive at a view of our athletes that’s similar to the way they look at candidates for office in Louisiana (the Frenchiest part of America). Down there, they figure if an officeholder isn’t smart enough to game the system, he isn’t qualified for the job.
So perhaps we should go ahead and embrace the change. God bless the U.S.A. And may the best cheater win.