Two Americans: Lance Armstrong and Barack Obama
Lance Armstrong, cyclist, and Barack Obama, politician, are contemporary Americans who have achieved pinnacles of fame, adulation, and money while accused of cheating. The events of their lives may serve to illuminate the America that produced them.
Lance Armstrong is a Texan, born in 1971, when President Obama was ten years old. His biography credits him with early ability in triathlon and cycling; he turned professional in triathlon at age 16. Winning cycling events brought him an invitation in 1989 to train with the U.S. Olympic cycling team in Colorado Springs while he was still in high school. From there, he went on to win a record seven Tours de France, the first American to command and then remain at the peak of European cycling.
Barack Obama was born in 1961, either in Kenya (alleged) or Hawaii (official), depending upon the version accepted. He went to school in Indonesia and then at Punahou Academy in Hawaii. He attended Occidental College, transferred to Columbia to complete a bachelor's degree, and then graduated from Harvard Law School, where he is said to have excelled. The records that would settle his birthplace and explain his education and its financing are sealed. One of Mr. Obama's biographies states that he worked for two years in the private sector and later as a community organizer in Chicago, where he also taught at the University of Chicago's law school. He was briefly a civil rights lawyer. He was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996, serving until 2004, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate. He served there until he was elected to the presidency in 2008.
Both men displayed exceptional abilities while young; Lance Armstrong worked hard enough to attract national attention while in high school. Barack Obama apparently caught the eyes of various mentors and sponsors at about the same age; at least, his succeeding education suggests as much.
Lance Armstrong is described as an intense, driven personality, something that fits the fatiguing, sweaty misery that is top-level cycling. He is divorced. Barack Obama's personality is harder to fathom; a former aide believes that the president's pattern of rarely reaching out to others reflects a general dislike for people, something unusual in a politician. He is married, with two daughters. Both Armstrong and Obama seem to be public performers with a distinctly private side.
Lance Armstrong's personal wealth is estimated at $125 million, with an additional future $200 million now foreclosed by the United States Anti Drug Agency (USADA)'s recent revocation of his accomplishments. President and Mrs. Obama's assets are estimated at $11.8 million in 2012. Much of that seems to be the result of a book deal offered the president after his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention brought him to national attention. Both men, it must be said, have achieved financial success. Lance Armstrong's wealth is not threatened by the loss of his titles in the USADA action according to some; others disagree. The president's assets seem unthreatened.
Both men have engaged in charity; Armstrong set up his Livestrong Foundation after his recovery from cancer, and Obama donated his Nobel Peace Prize money to charities. Armstrong has been called a philanthropist on account of his various charitable activities; the president's charity is hard to disengage from the political, as speaking is a significant element.
Lance Armstrong has been very publicly divested of his glory and perhaps of his winnings by a single, major prosecution by the USADA. That agency has been accused of gunning for the cyclist for a long time; Armstrong just didn't fail doping tests in a sport known to be full of dopers. The prosecution had to rely on witness testimony from Armstrong's competitors and teammates, people who had been accused or were perhaps threatened with accusation themselves. The case has an aroma of a crusade, perhaps expressing the frustration of the USADA at its inability to accomplish what it was created to do. There seems to be little doubt that cycling's top performers are consistent, big-time dopers and have been for years. The same seems likely for any sport paying big money where performance is capable of chemical enhancement. The entire pro sports business -- and it is first and always a business -- seems as hypocritical as the government's "war on drugs" -- a kissing cousin in the eyes of many.
Lance Armstrong's star has fallen; Barack Obama's awaits November 6, 2012. Both cycling and politics are grimy, gritty businesses, full of deceit and hypocrisy. Both Americans have achieved greatly in their fields; one has failed greatly, while the other is poised to succeed or fail as well. We've explored some similarities; there are some differences.
Lance Armstrong spent his life sweating, grinding out painful miles year after year until no one could stay with him on his chosen Tours de France for seven consecutive years. He had no advantage from doping; they all do it. There is simply too much money in play. He played the game (you can't change the world), beat all comers, and made his pile. He's a liar, apparently; he broke the rules but denied doing that. But when the entire "sport" doesn't follow the rules, with everybody flouting them, one wonders who are the real hypocrites. Armstrong followed the unwritten rules; his choice was between that and not participating. Because the USADA does want to change the world, or at least to stop looking silly, it had to, to the best of its ability, destroy Lance Armstrong. Armstrong earned his pinnacle but lost his throw of the dice.
The president seems not to have sweated much rising to his own pinnacle. His refusal to reveal things most people don't hide raises curiosity, if nothing more. His career is distinguished by both its shadowed details and the degree to which it may have relied on the efforts or money of others. His notable personal accomplishments seem to be success in law school and election to office, with the law school success subsequently tarnished by relinquishment of his law license. The reasons for that action are unavailable. The years in Chicago politics that led to those elections seem a reasonable parallel to Lance Armstrong's cycling; both games are known to be dirty, and success relies on acceptance of and participation according to the games' unwritten rules. The main difference is perhaps that politics lacks an USADA.
The careers of these two outstanding, accomplished, wealthy, and certainly interesting Americans raise this question: what should we think of the society that has produced them? We have, in one case, joined unthinking in a huge, ongoing, and ultimately destructive professional sports hypocrisy that couldn't exist without its paying fans. In the other case, we have flocked to worship and thereby empower a hollow god as a means of handing off responsibilities that must ultimately be ours. We've been doing the same thing for over four thousand years that we know of. Will we ever grow up?