I get a lot of e-mail, and whenever I write about Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France I get a lot more of it. Earlier this year I got angry letters from cycle racing fans when I wrote that Armstrong is not the athlete Serena Williams is. In spite of the heartfelt arguments on Armstrong’s behalf I remain quite happy with that assessment. This week I’ve gotten another big pile of e-mail from many of the same folks angry over my column calling the Tour de France antithetical to American values.
And this time the Lycra set is dead right. I messed up.
I don’t mean the Tour de France is not antithetical to American values. In fact, several people who wrote in argued that the values I described — basically, win at all costs and sportsmanship is for after the game — are not typically American, and then in the same paragraph said how happy they were not to be typical Americans, since they don’t have those values. Hey, which is it? (On the other hand, one reader wrote, “Holy shit! You’ve summed up American foreign and economic policy as well. Bravo!”)
What I mean is that almost everyone who wrote in pointed out why it was that Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong didn’t race each other in the two flat sprints last Thursday and Friday, that it was a strategic move on both of their parts, rather than a “truce,” as I’d described it.
“By not attacking every single day Jan Ullrich is not being polite. He’s being smart,” wrote one representative reader. “Because of the kind of rider he is, it doesn’t make any sense for him to tire himself out on certain stages, because he has literally no chance of making up any time on Armstrong. By saving his energy for Saturday’s time trial he gives himself the best chance of taking the race.”
Here’s the thing: I knew that. I was trying, and really, really failing, to portray the thoughts of what I’ll call a typical American sports fan in that passage. Readers missed that subtle point because they’re not mind readers, and also because they probably couldn’t imagine I’d be doing anything so dumb. I’m sure the cycle crowd won’t believe me that I know a little something about strategy in the Tour de France, and that’s fine. It’s infinitely more embarrassing to me to be guilty of terrible writing than to be ignorant of the finer points of bicycle racing.
Many also argued that the leaders waiting for a fallen contender was not “courtliness” but self-preservation, since what goes around comes around, as Armstrong is fond of saying. Next race, you might be the one who hits the deck or has a mechanical problem, and you’ll want the leaders to wait for you.
I’ll take my chances. Next race may never come. Again, I think that’s a characteristically American attitude.
A few had another explanation for the leaders waiting for the fallen Armstrong: “Ullrich waited for Armstrong not because he was being ‘courtly,’” wrote one, “but because he really wanted to compete against Armstrong. He didn’t want to just run the course and accept the default victory.”
I’m pretty comfortable with the term “courtliness” to describe that. An equivalent in American sports would be a football receiver waiting for a defensive back who’s slipped and fallen, or a base runner stopping at third because an outfielder has injured himself diving for a ball. It’s not going to happen.
My 2003 Christmas present for all fans of Armstrong, the Tour de France, bicycles and yellow jerseys: I will not mention any of it again before 2004.
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More mail: Sports flix [PERMALINK]
Readers had many good alternative suggestions for Wednesday’s Sports Daily film festival. Here are a few, with my comments:
“Breaking Away” (1979): This was the movie my friend was talking about when she first used the term “jumping over fences movie” in my presence. It’s nice, though. Ditto “Chariots of Fire” (1981), though that one’s really pretty sappy.
“Fear Strikes Out” (1957): Anthony Perkins as baseball player Jimmy Piersall, who came back from a mental breakdown. This just missed the list. I think it’s kind of pedestrian, really. Perkins is good doing that psycho thing, but I think he was way miscast — Piersall was a two-fisted, square-jawed tough guy, not a mousy nervous sort like Perkins. And the whole thing kind of comes across as a TV movie before the age of TV movies. Passable, but “Somebody Up There Likes Me” has more goofy charm in the biopic category.
“A League of Their Own” (1987): A fairly early cut from the program. Not a bad movie at all, with nice performances and some snappy writing. But in the last reel it becomes a standard buddy picture, sports division. There’s a real interesting story to be told about that women’s pro baseball league — did you know they actually played softball in the first few years? — but it didn’t really get told here. I guess that’s OK, but the real problem was that the movie got all soft at the end. More Jon Lovitz wisecracking and Tom Hanks being disgusting, and less Geena Davis and Lori Petty hugging. That woulda been good.
“North Dallas Forty” (1979): I’ve never been able to appreciate this football flick the way so many others of my acquaintance seem to. It seems like my kind of movie, a look at the dirty underbelly of professional sports. It’s just always struck me as kind of not very good. I find myself bored silly.
“Personal Best” (1982): One reader called it “a semi-honest, enlightening look into amateur sports when such a thing actually existed at some level.” Plus: naked fit bodies and lesbianism. I saw it a long time ago. Maybe I was too young to appreciate it, but all I remember is that it was really long and involved a lot of slow motion.
“Phar Lap” (1983): I’ve never seen this one about a real-life horse that can be fairly described as Australia’s Seabiscuit. It’s sort of been on my list to see for 20 years, without ever having risen anywhere near the top of my list, if you know what I mean. One reader called it “the movie ‘Seabiscuit’ should have been.”
“Pat and Mike” (1952): Tracy and Hepburn. She’s a golfer. Great screwball stuff with dialogue that snaps like a rubber band. “Not much meat on her, but what’s there is cherce.” I just forgot about it.
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