Friday, October 19, 2012

On Decadence & Lance Armstrong

Before I get into the new turn this blog-- and my life-- are taking, I thought I'd post some of my thoughts on Lance Armstrong. The recent news of him stepping down from the seat of his charity, his loss of endorsements and reputation in the public eye have, more than anything else, saddened me. Which is why I wrote the following essay. 

I know so many of you won't share my opinion, and that's OK. I understand that doping is wrong and perhaps the worst thing you can do in the arena of sport. I remember once, while running the San Francisco Half Marathon, I saw a man cheat. Instead of running around the cones on the Marin side of the Golden Gate bridge, he cut straight across, gaining a good quarter mile on the rest of us. No one saw him but me and felt myself burn inside. 

Cheater! I thought. 

Tried my best to catch up to him so I could say something nasty. Pass him. Show him that cheaters never win. 

But I never did catch up. He had gained to much ground on me. 

So, it's not like I don't understand why people are upset or why all of this has happened to Lance Armstrong. I do. Very much so. It's just... Lance was unique, I believe, because of how he brought a previously "silent" sport to the forefront of American culture. And of how he represented a narrative we, as Americans love so much: the loser (or, in his case, the sick person) who regains health and becomes a champion. 

He represented, for a time, the best in all of us. 

And that is why I wrote the following piece. Yes, what he did was wrong. But then again, we are the ones who crave such exceptional bodies to perform and do the things we can't. 


The Decadence of Sport: Why Lance Armstrong is so Important

Lance Armstrong is one of those names that seems more like a cultural institution than the name of an individual citizen. Yet, I can remember a time before Armstrong when no one wore those yellow plastic floppy bangle bracelets, a time when the sport of cycling wasn’t even on the American radar. And then came 1999 and Lance’s triumphant win of the Tour de France despite his battle with testicular cancer. 
I remember that victory. 
I watched it with my dad.
I find this remarkable because neither my dad nor I were cyclists and we hardly spent time together at all. I don’t think he even owned a bicycle and I had just purchased an aluminum-framed Canondale that I rode on my own when I needed something to do with my legs while my mind churned out essays. And I hardly saw my dad-- and vice versa-- due to habit since my parents were divorced shortly after I was born.  And yet despite those things, 1999 and again in the years of Lance’s reign, that was the thing my dad and I shared. 
His wins. 

As we all know, Lance has been stripped of his medals, his titles and his victories. 
This is the year 2012, the year the Tour nearly saw French cyclist Remy di Gregorio bring a resurgence to the old-time world of French cycling. Nearly. Instead, he too was found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs and was barred from the three-week-long race.  And let’s not forget this year was also the year in which the Olympic Games held one of the most stringent drug testings ever recorded; officials will hold blood samples of athletes until 2020 when advancements in technology will enable us to strip a gold medal from someone who had won it nearly a decade before.

What is happening to sport? 
I still cycle, just like I did over ten years before, working my legs around that crank shaft to work out the kinks of thought that just don’t come out otherwise. Up mountains, descending into solitary residential roads, I wonder about these recent turn of events and our own historical moment.
Perhaps we are in our own 21st Century Decadence.

In late Nineteenth Century France, there was an artistic and literary movement called the Decadence. It’s the opposite of what it sounds like: you might think richness, a profuseness of art and texture, and an overall progression forward--but you’d be mistaken. That would be the Industrial Revolution, which came before the Decadence. 
Instead, I’m thinking of the 1880s and 1890s when “progress” had finally become old enough for skepticism. People were bored with advancements in science and technology and the “ease of life” each produced. Nothing was interesting anymore.  Society took a pessimistic view of all things. Writers created anti-heros. Art no longer revered “beauty” but instead, distortion. Decadence, therefore, could be aligned with decline. 
I learned about the Decadence when I was in my own intellectual decadence, enrolled in a graduate degree program I had no intention of using.  I read texts in French, wrote in French, spoke French to an office which contained a handful of other graduate students who couldn’t understand me since they came from other departments and studied other languages. The best way to describe my life then would be to assign whatever verb you like best with the tag-line adverb languorously.  
And, as luck would have it, it was the Decadence that stood between me and the beginning of a life outside academia. It was the day of my oral defense and suddenly the Decadence became the question du jour
After nearly an hour of answering every question with the confidence that comes from years of languorous studying, I lost my edge when I was asked: “Can you discuss the plot of the novel, À Rebours?” 
At that point, I swallowed hard, thinking, I might not pass this exam. 

Sport is a type of Art. 
It was the late 20th century articulation of culture, distilled.
Granted, sports’ methods are not the same. Instead of manipulating a medium, you manipulate a body. But just as Art has its system of aesthetic principles, its underlying --and guiding--philosophies, its big names-- so too, does sport. 
There is the athletic body: an aesthetic object with parameters we, as viewers, have come to expect. There are the rules that guide each sport, that challenge of excellence that peeks through the stitches of regulation. And then there’s the undeniable display of virtues that peal your ass from the seat when you see them in action. 
The underdog pulling ahead.
Triumph over adversity.
Beat the odds.
These clichés speak of progress and hope. The same principles that define a nation, and a single soul. 
And that’s what Lance was, in those years he dominated the Tour. He was our work of art. His body spoke of tragedy and hardship. His body, in winning, offered hope to viewers like my dad and I, perched on the edge of our sofa. Neither one of us cyclists, really, he made us feel the victory the way good art produces feelings in foreign bodies, moving each of us to tears. 

The novel of the French Decadence is called À Rebours
Against Nature.
Or, Against the Grain.
It’s narrated by a man, Des Esseintes, who is rich, but who chooses to live outside of town in order to retreat into an aesthetic existence of his own creation. He coats a tortoise’s shell with jewels, only to watch the creature perish from the weight of it. 
It’s a novel I didn’t read, though there were many-- particularly from Nineteenth Century France-- I didn’t. Since most are of considerable length, I developed a study strategy to pass the comprehensive exam at the end of the MA program: read the first three chapters, the last chapter and at least two critical articles about the text as a whole. 
In other words, in terms of claiming to be an “expert” of French literary history, I cheated (badly.)
I had notes. I had text books. But these were things I borrowed for a period of six months and put back once I-- expectedly-- got around to forgetting about them. 

Which is why my palms sweat when they asked me about À Rebours.
Tell us about the end, they said.

I hadn’t bothered to read the end of that particular novel. The end didn’t matter; the novel-- even from its first page, was a stunning example of decadence. Gilded-- fatal-- turtles. Defiled young men. Pipe organs that dispelled booze and mournful music. So Decadent, in other words, you didn’t need to read any further: the work was so anti-progress, it was against its own unfolding.
So: I cheated. 
I hadn’t read the book. I relied on notes and critical texts and four of its many chapters (you think I counted them?) to get me through the exam. 
In case you were wondering, I passed. 
But that’s not the point of this essay.
The point is there’s nothing about that to set you on the edge of a sofa with your son or daughter. There’s no heroism in meeting goals no matter what it costs you. 

Yes, the fall of Lance Armstrong is a historic moment. 
Most will remember it as a moment that governing authorities on sports finally decided to enforce the rules. 
But really, it’s more than that. 
We, collectively, created Lance Armstrong and his peers. We wanted them: these super men who fought off cancer and rode up steep mountainsides like they were walking to a corner cafe for coffee. They were our art, embodying our personal and national philosophies, our inability to ride or run or swim like that-- to talk to our dads-- but man can Lance ride a bike!
Now that Lance is no longer the icon he was, I wonder about those afternoons on the sofa with my dad-- and what it took to bring us together. I’ve heard art described as a lie-- but maybe it’s one of the good ones. A necessary “evil.”
Or, maybe it just means we, as individuals, need to try harder to become our own heroes from now on. It’s time, in other words, for us to embody our own dreams with our own bodies.
And perhaps that’s Lance’s most profound reminder: Excellence is beyond the external. It comes, first and always, from within.

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