Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Both Sides of the Coin

On Some Faraway Beach: Ryan Lochte's Quiet Dominance

“I love him who desires the impossible.”
—Goethe, Faust

Nobody but swimmers pays attention to swimming when the Summer Olympics aren’t happening. As with many Olympic sports, it’s compelling enough when it’s on NBC amid the din and pageantry and Costasification, but it slips easily off the radar when the volume gets turned back down. There’s no external history to the sport for us, no obvious route to fandom. Competitive swimmers are dedicated athletes who battle for glory, but they’re also pale people who live their lives swimming endless laps in artificially-lit pools and know more about chlorine's effects on hair and skin than you or I would care to think about.

We’ve more or less reached cultural sports saturation. The big three rule the airwaves and bandwidth, and hockey, NASCAR and MMA all vie to join the club. Soccer is the wild card, combining massive global success with stop-and-start domestic attention. Anything else is a niche interest. Michael Phelps is a star, but in the Lance Armstrong way where he transcends the limitations of his sport’s appeal. He's context-free, famous for being a winner, not a swimmer.

I’m totally fine with that. As a dedicated sidestroke man, competitive swimming was never my game and I therefore wouldn’t know how to follow it if I wanted to. I imagine, however, that the sport’s grappling with technological advances in swimsuits is fascinating if you have all of the facts. Remember that during the Olympics there was a lot of hullabaloo about swimsuit technology, nearly as much as there was about swimmers. New advances in computer design and materials let Speedo et al. make a suit that slipped through the water and forced the swimmer’s body into ideal hydrodynamic position while giving muscles compression. Just like when speed skating saw the clap skate’s introduction, the record books were rewritten over the course of a year or two. The marks of old champions fell not just to superior talent and modern conditioning1 but also to a technological advantage modern swimmers enjoyed. A lesser swimmer could post a better time than, say, 1990’s best breaststroker2 purely because of what he or she was wearing.
1: And, if we're being honest, modern drugs in some instances.
2: I will never be mature enough to not snicker at some things...

Unlike speed skating, the powers that be in swimming decided this was a bad thing. They were smart enough not to tamper with the record books and disallow the new records, but high-tech bodysuits were illegal in races starting this year. Predictably, the onslaught of new swimming world records stopped pretty much overnight.

Except for Ryan Lochte. Lochte, whom you may remember as the Scottie Pippen to Michael Phelps’s Jordan in the 2008 Olympics, or maybe Drysdale to his Koufax, has apparently been on a tear. He has set two world records this year, both in individual medleys. This wouldn’t be noteworthy were it not for the fact that no other swimmer has broken a single one.

The swimsuit era is apparently competitive swimming’s version of baseball’s Steroid Era, when world records fell left and right because of an unnatural competitive advantage over history. Credit the sport’s organizers with deciding to put a stop to it all, rather than sit back and enjoy records falling as engineers built faster suits, an Enlightenment ideal of sporting progress.3 Lochte isn’t getting much press about the accomplishment, probably in part because of media desensitization to broken world records. Still, if he keeps performing at this level he should be able to win enough gold medals to have NBC produce soft-focus human interest clips and get his face plastered on all the Wheaties boxes he could want. In the meantime, we’d do well to take a second and appreciate someone not just beating his competitors but also overcoming a systematic handicap to set world records. He swam those two individual medleys faster than anyone else ever, including previous record-holders who enjoyed a virtual head start. If swimming were on Sportscenter, he would be LeBron James or Michael Vick. That's not going to happen, but he deserves more than nothing.
3: There will of course still be a swimsuit technology arms race, but within set limits, much like UCI regulation of bicycles.

You Don't Miss Your Water 'Til Your Well Runs Dry: Floyd Landis Bottoms Out

“What is left is the other side of the Faustian bargain: To live all one’s days never able to recapture the feeling of those few years of intensified youth. In a way it is the fate of a warrior class to receive rewards, plaudits, and exhilaration simultaneously with the means of self-destruction.”
– Bill Bradley, Life on the Run

I doubt you noticed, because it’s depressing and not that meaningful by itself, but it came out a few days ago that Floyd Landis wore a wire for federal agents last spring to help gather evidence against Michael Ball, who ran a low-level pro team. Landis, whom we last heard making pointed accusations4 about Lance Armstrong/US Postal Service Team doping, seems to be doing everything he can to destroy anyone he can in cycling. If you’re virulently anti-doping, maybe that makes him a hero for doing the ugly right thing. If you stake out any other position, he’s a flawed man striking those he can to get even. Maybe he’s trying to prove a larger point, but if so any message he’s trying to convey is lost in the mess of it all.
4: Accusations which, it should be said, are equally plausible and unproven.

His is no righteous cause. If you believe the urine tests, he won the Tour de France by doping and was rightfully stripped of the illegally-gained title. If you believe his statements, he’s innocent of those charges but guilty of systematically doping throughout his career. He’s hardly the lone doper in cycling, but that doesn’t excuse anything. Even if this Michael Ball wire business is part of a Justice Department attempt to entangle former USPS riders into a case they can then roll up the food chain to Lance, it’s also biting the hand of a man who tried hard to get Floyd a job when almost no one else was interested in his comeback. That’s pretty cold, especially for a guy who needs all the friends he can find.

And yet I find myself feeling for the guy. I’m not trying to excuse him, necessarily. I don’t know enough about what he’s doing or why he’s doing it to really construct an informed opinion about where to place him on my personal good guy/bad guy spectrum. Either way, it’s pretty hard to imagine things going worse for a pro athlete who is still healthy (in a non-professional sense) and didn’t murder anyone.

His high-water mark was winning the 2006 Tour de France, a victory born of one of the greatest one-day rides pro cycling has ever seen. After performing so badly in the race’s 16th stage that he was written off as a contender, he responded by destroying the field in the 17th, beating the second-place finisher by nearly six minutes, a margin rarely seen in the pros. It looked like he had picked up the mantle of Great American Cyclist that Armstrong had abdicated, third in a line that started with Greg LeMond. If he could build on that victory, he could grow the sport further in the States while basking in adulation and endorsement dollars. But then it all went wrong.

The specifics are up for debate, but no one now claims he didn’t dope. Cycling is a sport rife with doping, so to be stripped of a Tour victory for it has to feel somewhat unfair to the caught rider. If half the peloton is doing it, getting singled out can’t seem fair, even if the punishment is the law. If he’s right about Armstrong’s doping history, it must be galling to have served as lieutenant for a serial offender who walked off a legend and then to go down in flames for the same crime. Examples must be made if the sport is going to get cleaned up5 but you can't fault the examples will feel singled out if doping is as pervasive as some claim. Add to that the possibility that he got caught for a drug he might not have taken and things get even murkier.
5: Whatever that means.

But fine, he doped and got caught for doping. That’s the system working. Others getting off scot-free doesn't excuse the crimes of those caught. Trumpeting his innocence, he raised around one million dollars from fans to fund his court defense, but he lost, was suspended for two year, and his legal bill was at least twice what he raised. He won the Tour, but that blew up in his face before he had the chance to cash in on the victory. Financially, he’s ruined.

His honesty, if that’s what it is, in admitting his own doping while fingering Lance bolsters his credibility as an accuser, but it also lays bare the duplicity of soliciting money from fans to clear his name. Whatever loyalists remained after years of court motions and underwhelming comeback were surely jettisoned then. Any sympathy he earned when he was running those Ride With Floyd events was gone in a flash of hypocrisy. “They all did it too!” is a way shittier justification than “I’m innocent!”

His career is over. Since his suspension ended Landis has been an unremarkable domestic racer. His sole international race was the 2009 New Zealand Tour of Southland, where he finished 17th of 95 racers in a race that has only ever been won by Kiwis, Aussies, and a lone unheralded American—hardly a springboard back into European racing. He last competed in the Cascade Cycling Classic in Oregon without a team, so it’s fair to say he’s done as a professional cyclist. Given how thoroughly he’s burned his bridges in the sport, I don’t see how he could forge a career in management, media or with a company in the industry.

The personal picture seems no better. In 2006, his close friend, ex-roommate, and father-in-law committed suicide, something Landis has admitted is almost certainly related to his doping conviction. His wife left him in 2009. He has never had a close relationship with the Mennonite parents who disapproved of his cycling when it was just a childhood hobby. It’s hard to imagine he has any strong roots after living the nomadic life of a peloton rider. He’s working with/for the Feds these days but there’s no future in that once Lance Armstrong is either caught or slips their snare.6 After that, what does he have left? Cycling is done with him, whether or not he’s done with it. He has no background in anything else or education beyond high school. I don’t know anything specific about his finances, but there’s no way he’s rich after his legal battles (and maybe divorce settlement). His family has fallen apart. He is the shell of what he was, defined by the career that was ripped from him. He hasn’t really been a pro cyclist for five years, but he’s a 35-year-old with no other obvious options. He's a man who has outlived his self-definition, and there's nothing sadder in sports. I'm not saying he didn't get what he deserves, but I can't help but feel sorry for him.
6: If the feds couldn't get Barry Bonds for his ties to an organization as flagrant as BALCO, I have my doubts about their ability to nail Armstrong. He's well-connected and powerful in his sport, the American public loves him as a champion and cancer crusader and if he did dope, it surely happened largely in Europe, at least on an organizational level.


  1. Dude's own fault for unleashing his success in a non-leap year. What a jerk. People are just in a more receptive state for those soft-focus pieces after February 29th has gone down, nothing to be done.

    Do either of you fellas have strong feelings about the uptick in Eggo waffle throwing at Maple Leafs games? Under HRH QE2, you can apparently be charged with "mischief".

  2. I have trouble condemning a man for breakfast projectiles. Were he throwing waffle irons, sure, throw the bum out, but can a waffle really disrupt a hockey game?


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