Lance Armstrong, Iván Fernández Anaya and the meaning of sport

Despite my general indifference to sport, I found myself today reading two articles that led me to question what exactly we understand sport to be.

The first barely needs recounting. Lance Armstrong, until recently revered as the ultimate sportsman for overcoming testicular cancer to win the Tour de France seven times in a row, admitted to Oprah Winfrey what the world already knew: that all of those titles were won by taking performance-enhancing substances.

The second article was a story in the Spanish daily, El País, which has been passed around today on Facebook.

Fernández Anaya helps Mutai toward the line / CALLEJA (DIARIO DE NAVARRA)
Fernández Anaya helps Mutai toward the line / CALLEJA (DIARIO DE NAVARRA)

“On December 2, Spanish athlete [elsewhere, “Basque athlete”] Iván Fernández Anaya was competing in a cross-country race in Burlada, Navarre. He was running second, some distance behind race leader Abel Mutai – bronze medalist in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the London Olympics. As they entered the finishing straight, he saw the Kenyan runner – the certain winner of the race – mistakenly pull up about 10 meters before the finish, thinking he had already crossed the line.

Fernández Anaya quickly caught up with him, but instead of exploiting Mutai’s mistake to speed past and claim an unlikely victory, he stayed behind and, using gestures, guided the Kenyan to the line and let him cross first.”

The meaning of sport and the meaning of cheating

Think of what we mean when we use the word sport. As a word, sport suggests competition: but it also means fun. Sport involves athletic ability: but it also signifies fairness. Which one of the two – the champion Armstrong or the runner-up Fernández Anaya – is the greater sportsman?

“I didn’t deserve to win it,” Fernández Anaya said after the race, according to El País. “I did what I had to do. He was the rightful winner.”

Armstrong says he also did what he had to do. When Oprah asked if it was “humanly possible to win the Tour de France [seven times] without doping”, he responded: “Not in my opinion.”

And yet, he didn’t consider himself to be cheating. He said: “The definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don’t have. I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.”

Not for Lance Armstrong the adage of sportsmanship, it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts. He told Oprah directly: “It was win at all costs.”

Lance Armstrong, 2004 Tour de France.(Wikimedia Commons)
Lance Armstrong, 2004 Tour de France.
(Wikimedia Commons)

This has all the blinkered, oxymoronic illogicality of the Cold War arms race, or the subprime housing market – more weapons to achieve peace; more debt to achieve security; and more cheating to achieve fairness. It can only ever fail, because it is a delusion. In relation to cycling, by the rationale of its erstwhile crown prince, it implies that the object of sport is not who is the most athletic and therefore deserving, but who is the most conniving, and therefore most successful, cheater.

Surprisingly, Fernández Anaya’s coach, Martín Fiz seems more sympathetic to Armstrong’s philosophy.

Of his protégé’s action, he said: “The gesture has made him a better person but not a better athlete. He has wasted an occasion. Winning always makes you more of an athlete. You have to go out to win.”

Motivation and the means to a brand

Why is winning the final goal of sport, even to the cost of the meaning of the word sport?

It seems to me that sport is no longer simply competition for glory, or for excellence of achievement. It has become about what competition in the economic sphere is also all about – profit. Try to watch professional, or increasingly amateur, sport without seeing advertising everywhere. Find me a single athlete who has become internationally successful without endorsing a product or company.

Talent and skill still matter in sport, but these days they matter more as a means to an end – or a means to a brand. How much an athlete can sell his or her brand for, how profitable that brand is, has become the greater arbiter in professional sport. Sport has become simply another arena for cynical, opportunistic corporate profiteering – or as it is euphemistically called in the sport business, “sponsorship”. It is in that changed arena that Lance Armstrong – and his fellow world-class cyclists – felt the need to dope themselves to win.

Pride

There is another element to sportsmanship, an element with two distinct forms – pride. There is first a noble pride in your achievements (or the achievements of others, which Iván Fernández Anaya took in Abel Mutai’s success). But what pride can you take in winning by cheating? The answer is the second type of pride – the hubris that drives you to win at all costs.

Armstrong’s admission and his contrition seem, in my view, to be born from that same hubristic pride. They are as dishonest as his cheating, coming only when he can’t deny it any more. They are his last chance to save face, to claw back some credibility, to salvage some of that first type of pride. He deserves none.

Iván Fernández Anaya does admit that if there had been a medal at stake, he may not have been so forgiving of Mutai’s mistake. Even if that were the case, no one would have thought him dishonest. He should be proud not just of his action, but also his rationale for it.

He said: “Today, with the way things are in all circles, in soccer, in society, in politics, where it seems anything goes, a gesture of honesty goes down well.”

The meaning of sport – or more exactly, sportsmanship – is embodied far more greatly in Fernández Anaya than in Armstrong. The runner-up has far more reason than the champion to be proud of his sportsmanship .

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