Armstrong gets back in the saddle

As always, Lance Armstrong was thorough in planning, researching and chronicling his return to professional cycling. Nothing, it seems, was left to chance. In figuring out his chances to win an unprecedented eighth Tour de France next year, Armstrong weighed his options, talked things over with his inner circle, gauged the reactions and tore through it all as if he were searching for a needle in a haystack with a fine-toothed comb.

Everything regarding the public announcement and the return was orchestrated. According to author Douglas Brinkley, the hand-picked scribe to compose the story for Vanity Fair, Armstrong hired a film crew to document the entire process. From the initial announcement, through the training in Colorado and California, to the buildup races in the U.S. and Europe, all the way to the starting line in Monte Carlo on July 4 to the finish at the Champs-Élysées, movie makers will record it all.

Certainly there is nothing like watching a solitary bike rider pedal up an abandoned mountain road. Talk about riveting…

Facetiousness aside, what is fascinating is the nod toward history and perhaps even the self-indulgence Armstrong has about his place in the lexicon of the world in and out of sports. That’s not to dismiss the man – that would be dumb. Armstrong is a force of nature and a celebrity amongst celebrities. Not only is Armstrong the most decorated cyclist ever, but also he is the greatest benefactor of cancer research in the world.

As such, Armstrong tabbed Brinkley, the prolific presidential historian and executor of the literary estate of Hunter S. Thompson, to write the first version of this new history. Clearly a mere sportswriter was not big enough for this type of work.

Nevertheless, Armstrong says the comeback is personal. It’s about cancer as well as the lingering doubts that he won his first seven Tour de France titles unscrupulously. It’s also about a 37-year-old man being inspired by other athletes in his demographic, like Dara Torres, and their ability to perform at elite levels regardless of age. To prove himself (and his sincerity) this time around, Armstrong says he will entertain all questions from all outposts of the mass media and, just for good measure, will undergo a vigorous drug-testing program. The results, he says, will be posted publically on the web for all to see.

Openness seems to be the theme for Armstrong. Though clearly calculated – and not as if he didn’t submit to hundreds of drug tests as well as personal public consumption in the past – Armstrong is letting it all hang out. Seemingly there will be no filter.

And seemingly, there could be another motive. Armstrong’s first book was called, “It’s Not About The Bike.” That’s a pretty catchy title to sum up a guy who has an inner drive that exceeds his freakishly off-the-charts VO2 reading, who also, by the way, survived advanced cancer at the age of 25 when he was given less than a 40 percent chance to survive.

But maybe this time it is about the bike just a little bit. Maybe in that sense Armstrong is a little like Michael Jordan or Brett Favre in that the sport is actually embedded deep into his core being. Maybe the guy just loves to train and compete and live that “monastatic” lifestyle that he once described that made him “super fit.”

Maybe he just likes to ride his bike and win races. Maybe he just likes to do that better than anyone else in the world.

When asked if he could reveal something about Armstrong that no one else would know, ex-teammate and star-crossed winner of the 2006 Tour de France, Floyd Landis, told me:

“I don’t think I know anything that anyone else knows,” Landis told me. “People have perceptions of him that might not be very accurate, but I don’t know any details that they wouldn’t know. The guy is obsessed. With whatever he does he is obsessed, and whatever he does he wants to be the best at it. 

“Ultimately, he doesn’t have a lot of close friends because of it and he winds up not being the nicest guy. But that doesn’t make him a doper. That doesn’t make him a cheater. It might make him someone you don’t want to be around, but that doesn’t mean he took advantage of anyone else or that he deserves the harassment some people are giving him.”

Anyone who has ever trained for a marathon, bike race or any other type of sporting/endurance event understands how it can turn folks in possessed creatures. The training gets into your blood and becomes an obsession like a drug or a disease. In the midst of all the training, with its loneliness, suffering, pain, sacrifice and forced asceticism, the athlete can’t wait for race to arrive. He just wants to be done with it and take a break – you know, maybe have a beer or a slice of pizza or something.

But go to the finish line of a race and people can see some athletes stumbling around not in the stupor of physical exertion, but instead the lost feeling of not knowing what to do next.

When the training and the race ends, then what? Where do we go from here?

For Lance it is back on the saddle again, which is where he always wanted to be.

More: “Lance Armstrong Rides Again” – Douglas Brinkley for Vanity Fair

Protest is (not) futile

No, it wasn’t exactly John Carlos and Tommie Smith atop the medal stand in Mexico City for the 1968 Olympics, but for Kobe Bryant that simple gesture caught by a photographer during the Opening Ceremonies in Beijing on Friday morning was about as political as it gets.

From the way it looked it was nothing more than a fleeting moment. Like a trendy, throwaway gesture that all the kids make that really doesn’t mean anything. Oh sure, maybe Kobe Bryant is for peace. Maybe deep down he believes the Chinese government-supported and bankrolled genocide in Darfur is further proof of the decay of society. The thought that human life is worth less than barrels of oil should make Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and every athlete for every nation march into the Olympic Stadium with black-gloved fists in the air.

But to make a gesture that actually had meaning behind it – that actually meant what it stood for – would be a risk for an athlete of Kob Bryant’s stature. After all, Kobe is one of Nike’s top spokesmen in the Beijing Olympics. Since a lot of Nike’s products that are sold in the U.S. are made in China, and because the shoe company has a large stake in the Chinese economy, spokesman Kobe can’t go around making declarations for human rights.

Protest is futile.

Or has Kobe simply been muzzled? Certainly we know the Lower Merion grad has some thoughts on issues like Darfur based on a public service announcement he made earlier this year. Here it is:

But in China, with Team USA, Bryant says he won’t comment on the issue anymore.

“That’s where we’ll leave it,” he told The Washington Post.” We’re going to focus on what we’ve got to do. We’ve got enough on our plate to bring back the gold medal. So we let the people that know best about the situation handle that situation and us do what we do.”

Who might that be? Is it Team USA Managing Director Jerry Colangelo, who reportedly addressed the Olympians and told them not to politicize the games, a charge he later denied in the Post story?

“We have empathy for what’s happening, be it in Tibet or Darfur, and if our players are asked and their heart tells to say something, that’s up to them,” he said. “I know people want quotes from some of these athletes on these issues, but come Aug. 26, I don’t think we’ll be asking those same questions. It’s kind of newsy now. I don’t have an issue with that at all.”

Wait… so human rights violations and genocide only matter when it fits into the proper news cycle? Is it me or was there a time when Darfur or Tibet has not been news?

Nevertheless, Coach Mike Krzyzewski says he and Colangelo have encouraged the basketball players to speak on whatever they want, but encouraged politeness toward the Chinese hosts.

“We want to make sure that we’re good ambassadors for our country and make sure that we’re representing our game here in the Olympics,” Krzyzewski said.

Because representing basketball and Nike is the bottom line, right?

So that’s where Team USA will leave it. Kind of a political don’t-ask, don’t-tell where the most provocative comment came from James.

“I don’t want to bring no distractions to our team. My number one goal coming here was not to speak on political issues, it was to come win a gold medal,” James said. “I said if I was asked the question then I would answer, and I’d say that basic human rights should be protected. That’s how I feel. It’s not going to go further than that. It’s not going to go less than that.”

Here’s where the curious part comes in. Though athletes were politicized a generation or two ago and sometimes even risked arrest and the loss of their career to make social and political statements, the latter generations have been defined by its public apathy on issues that do not mesh with capitalism, commerce and bling.

They can cite Michael Jordan as the trail blazer in that regard when he famously failed to famously failed to endorse African-American democratic senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt in his early 1990s race against arch-conservative Jesse Helms in North Carolina, because, as Jordan stated at the time, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

Too be fair, Jordan quietly contributed money to Gantt’s campaign and has also been a contributor to Bill Bradley’s and Barack Obama’s run for the White House. Besides, people have the right to shut-up, too.

But the notion that the Olympic Games – of any era – are not political is incredibly naïve. Oh sure, we want it to be about the best athletes from all over the globe representing their country in fair competition, but even that is political. Governing bodies in each country select the athletes, bias and favoritism is bought and sold and then comes the bureaucracies that do the drug testing.

Perhaps the only time the Olympics were pure was when Carlos and Smith raised their fists in the air.

Regardless, the Olympic ideal remains. The idea that pure sport and the best of competition is hard to be cynical about. For that the U.S. has no further to look than the man who carried the flag into the Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies last Friday morning.

Middle-distance runner Lopez Lomong’s story certainly has been told and re-told enough since the U.S. athletes voted him to be the flag bearer. In fact, it’s hard to read a sentence about Lomong that doesn’t note that he was a once a “Lost Boy” from Sudan directly affected by the Chinese policy in that country. Torn from his family that hat he believed had been killed by Sudanese rebels when he was six, Lomong spent the next 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp before being adapted by a family in the U.S.

The rest is the quintessential American Dream.

Yet by selecting Lomong (a member of a group of athletes known asTeam Darfur) to do nothing more than carry the Stars and Stripes into the stadium for the Opening Ceremonies, the U.S. athletes sent an unmistakable message against the Chinese government’s role in the Darfur genocide.

So maybe there was something to Kobe’s peace salute after all.

Go U.S.A.

Yes, indeed, we’re talking about practice

Big BrownWorkouts are important indicators of potential performance. If a man or an animal put in quality workouts time in and time out, chances are they are going to do well when it comes time for the big day.

Plus, you can really tell a lot about a man (or an animal) based on how much he enjoys practice and his craft. Word is Seabiscuit whinnied and whined every time he saw horses circling the track. Sometimes it took all the might of the stable hands just to hold back the legendary horse from busting through the rails to take off after another horse breezing through a few furlongs.

The same was said about Michael Jordan, too. Legend has it that for as competitive and nasty as he was during a playoff game, he took the battles to another level during every day workouts. It was what made Jordan great, some said.

Allen Iverson? Practice? Not so much.

practice?As a workout fiend known for leaving some of his best performances on the back roads instead of in the big races, I have a special fondness for workout logs and results. That’s especially true this time of year when the Triple Crown stakes races approach. That’s why I spent a little while this afternoon combing through the charts and times for the workouts of the 20 horses set to race in this Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. Yeah, I’m sure some of the times are withheld and other workouts are ignored, but I continue to use the workouts as the top criterion for picking a winner in a horse race.

After that, it’s hard to ignore past performances.

Bloodlines? Yeah, that’s important, but not as much as one would think.

So without much more waxing on, here are the three horses I like in Saturday’s big race:

  • Eight Belles – the No. 5 horse is a field pick at 20-1, which means he’s not much of a contender. However, the Kentucky-bred filly has won four straight races this year as well a workout where he breezed through five furlongs in 58.2 this week. Last week Eight Belles did four furlongs in 46.6 and seems to be getting stronger.
  • Colonel John – OK, I like the name, and at 4-1 the No. 10 is the second favorite in the Derby. But the numbers are big – two five-furlongs sessions in 57.8 and 59.4 during the last two weeks coupled with six lifetime races in which the Kentucky-bred colt has four wins and two second-place finishes. Call this horse the smart money.
  • Big Brown – Despite coming out of the 20th hole, the lightly-raced Kentucky native is the favorite at 3-1. However, even with a few somewhat pedestrian workouts, Big Brown is a big monster when the bell rings. All three of Big Brown’s wins were by big margins, including a five-length romp in last month’s Florida Derby. Word around the backstretch is that Big Brown is a big “freak” and very well might roll over the big field for the first jewel of the Triple Crown.

Could Big Brown be the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978? We’ll find out on Saturday. In the meantime, arrange the 5, 10 and 20 in a trifecta and send me a big kudos if this works out for you.

Fully engaged?

Barack & HillaryToday is another Super Tuesday of sorts in the Presidential primary races. It gets the all-encompassing “super” moniker simply because of the implications the races in Vermont, Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island. For the Republicans it means that shoo-in nominee John McCain will collect the necessary delegates to put him over the top.

On the Democrats side, a four-state sweep by Barack Obama could push Hillary Clinton’s Presidential bid to the brink. However, if Clinton wins the two delegate-rich states in Texas and Ohio, be ready for a full-court press by both candidates before the Pennsylvania primary on April 22.

Here comes the understatement of the week: There is a lot at stake today.

But that fact has been known for a very long time. In fact, media reports indicate that the 2008 bid for the White House has galvanized voters of all ages in ways that have not been seen in a very long time. People are engaged in the process, they are listening to the speeches out on the campaign trail, dial up the relevant news on the Internet, and have turned out to the polls in record numbers.

Everyone is engaged, especially 20-something year-old voters, who, according to reports, have turned off the ridiculous YouTube videos and dived into the national discourse. Better yet, those folks are asking questions and confronting conventional wisdom… these are all very good things. Frankly, it should make all citizens, regardless of political philosophy, to see so many people engaged.

It is an exciting time in our history.

But according to an story by Jeff Pearlman, there is one subset of folks whose precarious bubble has not been pierced to allow reality inside. That group?

Major League Baseball players.

According to Pearlman’s story, there are little fraternity houses in every ballpark around the country where Maxim magazine, the lack of fuel efficiency of one’s Hummer, and the run-of-the-mill superficiality of the bling-bling culture have not been offset by a true historical moment. Yes, according to Pearlman, baseball players are as dumb as ever.

Chronicling his visit with the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals and the lack of political discourse therein, Pearlman charted the top 10 topics of discussion. They were:

Indeed, a top 10 list of spring training topics discussed by ballplayers would look something like this:

2. Free sunglasses
3. Breasts
4-5. Jesus/golf (tie)
6. Dinner options
7. The Kyle Kendrick YouTube video
8. Britney Spears
9. Strip clubs
10. More Jesus/golf (tie)

C.J. WilsonNot every player is so switched off, though. One who was not shy about discussing his disdain for his teammates’ apathy was reliever C.J. Wilson, a left-hander who has been described as a Taoist and adheres to the Ian MacKaye-inspired “Straight Edge” philosophy of personal politics. When asked who amongst his teammates is as interested in the Presidential races as he, Wilson glumly answered, “No one.”

“It’s frustrating,” Wilson told Pearlman. “I’d say there are two reasons. One, there’s a general lack of education among us. But two – and most important – you’re talking about a population that makes a ton of money, so the ups and downs of the economy don’t impact whether we’re getting paid. Therefore, we often don’t care.”

“It’s not that complex,” Wilson says. “Baseball players think about baseball.”

That’s true. Baseball players get paid a lot of money to play a game and there are always dozens of players just waiting to get a chance to bump off another from the lineup. Understandably, there is a lot of pressure involved in keeping such a high-profile and high-paying job.

Yet at the same time there is a ridiculous amount of downtime for professional athletes. Games don’t last all that long and there is only so much time that a player can devote to workouts and treatments and whatever other job-related tasks. As a result, Pearlman’s list is pretty apt, though he seems to have missed on the ballplayers’ devotion to gambling, card playing and crossword puzzles as favorite pastimes.

At the same time, maybe Pearlman picked the wrong clubhouse? The Phillies have a few players switched on to issues, if not elective politics. Chase Utley is a budding conservationist and has lent his name to environmental and animal-rights initiatives. Meanwhile, Jimmy Rollins, the team’s player representative, is quietly aware of history regarding civil rights and baseball.

Jamie Moyer runs his Moyer Foundation, which created and funds Camp Erin, the largest national network of bereavement camps for children and teens; Camp Mariposa, for children affected by addiction in their families; The Gregory Fund, for early cancer-detection research; and The Moyer Foundation Endowment for Excellence in Pediatric Palliative Care for Seattle’s Children’s Hospital.

Additionally, Moyer’s father-in-law, Digger Phelps, worked for the Office of National Drug Control Policy and also served as an observer in the 1993 elections in Cambodia.

Those things are little more involved than simply following along with the process. Still, baseball players have – and various athletes in general – have picked up the label as being nothing more than “dumb jocks.” Some have chided golfer Tiger Woods for refusing to take a stand on various racial and political issues. Meanwhile, Michael Jordan famously failed to endorse African-American democratic senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt in his early 1990s race against arch-conservative Jesse Helms in North Carolina, because, as Jordan stated at the time, “Republicans buy sneakers, too[1].”

That’s hardly as inspiring as Ali’s, “I ain’t got no quarrel with no Viet Cong,” but perhaps Jordan and Woods have to protect their corporate interests first? If that’s the case, how does one define ex-cyclist, turned marathoner, Lance Armstrong, who has been nothing if outspoken in endorsing political candidates and calling out others for their failure to work for improved cancer research and better health care?

Greg Odenwhat about Greg Oden, the top pick in last summer’s NBA draft? Out with an injury for the entirety of the season, Oden has spent his time following the campaigns and musing about them on his blog. In a recent interview with The Washington Post’s, Michael Wilbon, Oden admitted some of his naiveté about politics, but said he is committed to being fully engaged in the process.

“I can’t even imagine that now, knowing enough to govern a city or a state,” Oden told Wilbon. “I’m just at the point where I’m watching CNN more than I ever have, listening to the candidates. I’m not the most educated guy in the world on the issues, but I’m getting there.”

During various campaign stops, Oden has had a telephone conversation with Obama and introduced First Lady Laura Bush at a campaign event. He admitted that both events were quite nerve-wracking.

Nevertheless, Oden has come out with an endorsement for Obama on his blog and says the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I can’t say I know every single one of his policies by heart,” Oden told Wilbon, “but I’ve done enough homework to know what I like about him. I really feel more strongly about young people voting, about making an educated decision. I’m not trying to tell people what to do or who to vote for, just to educate themselves and participate. What could be the harm in that?”

None. None at all. Perhaps all this engagement could have some sort of influence on our democracy and maybe even get a few more folks involved.

Also by Pearlman: Nomar is a creep.

[1] To be fair, Jordan contributed money to Gantt’s campaign and has also been a contributor to Bill Bradley’s and Obama’s run for the White House. Plus, people have the right to shut-up, too.