Monday, July 12, 2010

Defeat: Lance Armstrong at the Tour

Those who share my passion for the Tour de France will likely have been as dismayed as I was by yesterday's humiliating defeat for one of its great champions. The race--akin to running a marathon every day but two, a number of them us steep mountains, for three consecutive weeks--is the sports world's most grueling challenge of endurance. I have been following this July event since the 1950s, on and off, and these days take full advantage of marvelous opportunity to watch the daily coverage, start to finish, on Versus.

Yesterday, Lance Armstrong had what must be his worst day ever in his many on the Tour. It has been a difficult year for him--the one he vowed from the start would be the last. At thirty-eight, he is already one of the elders of the tour, which he has won a staggering (and record-breaking) seven times and in he finished 3rd last year, after a couple of years' absence. It has been a phenomenal period of domination by this one man. An astute rider, he has in the past shown a remarkable skill in avoiding crashes, but this time around, his thirteenth, I believe, he has been plagued by accident and misfortune. On yesterday's stage, he was involved in two crashes at critical points in the race and ended up, on this first significant mountain stage, with an irreparable loss of more than eleven minutes on this stage alone.

Here's the upside: we now get to take a real measure of the man. Unless he's more severely injured than he appears to be, he must surely continue to ride for the remaining two weeks. Will he ride with a full heart, the same commitment, even knowing that he cannot possibly win? Will he ride in service to his now more competitive team-mate, Levi Leipheimer? Will he be able to find dignity in humiliation, strength in his now proven vulnerability? Early signs are good. His first tweet, after the loss: "When it rains it pours I guess. Today was not my day needless to say. Quite banged but gonna hang in there and enjoy my last two weeks."

We are taught, in our contemporary culture, to abhor failure, Humility is not greatly prized as a value in a society that worships power and success. And yet we have more to learn, perhaps, from failure--about ourselves and about the way we choose to live our lives. Listening to a recorded dharma talk by Thanissaro Bhikkhu this morning, I was struck in this context by his reference to three concepts that can help us put things in perspective: impermanence, the effects of stress, and not-self. In defeat or failure, I come out ahead if I remind myself that both victory and defeat are equally fleeting. If I cling to the humiliation of defeat, I manage only to increase the stress it brings along with it. But I can relieve that stress if I withdraw my ego from the equation: This (success/failure) is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am.

I'm hoping that Lance Armstrong, who in the past has modeled the values of determination and persistence and who has proved himself capable of surmounting all the odds--not only in the battle of the Tour, but also in the battle with life-threatening cancer--will now be able to model the potential power of failure and defeat. That would indeed be a remarkable achievement. "Livestrong" would only be strengthened by "Livevulnerable" and "Livetrue."

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