First published in The Guardian, 24 July 2004.
Lance Armstrong is poised to claim a unique sixth victory in the Tour de France. He shares his achievement of five wins with four other riders, and many Europeans find it galling that an American (from George Bush’s home state of Texas, no less) is set to surpass the European quartet of Merckx, Anquetil, Hinault and Indurain.
Transatlantic rivalry is only part of the story. Some cycling fans object to how Armstrong’s nine-man team operates with the sole purpose of ensuring their man will be wearing the winner’s yellow jersey as the riders enter the Champs Elysées tomorrow at the end of the three-week race. Europeans like the idea of the noble individual, striking out from the pack to ride heroically and alone over the mountains and through the vineyards to claim his prize. Merckx would attack, attack, attack, never content with second place. This year the colourful French rider and six times king of the mountains Richard Virenque chose Bastille Day for a daring 130-mile breakaway, to the delight of the home crowd. By contrast, Armstrong’s rides are carefully calculated; he only unleashes his speed and endurance at key moments, to maximum tactical effect. On the fast, flat days he will shelter behind his teammates, in the mountains he will use them as pacemakers. In fairness, each of the teams in the tour has a hierarchy. But Armstrong’s team has taken things to a new level, reflecting the special American love affair with team sports.
The three most popular American spectator sports are baseball, basketball and American football. Big hitters like Babe Ruth, gravity-defying geniuses like Michael Jordan or quarterbacks like Joe Montana may have star status, but it’s the team that’s the thing. Teams practice drills and set-plays, each member has clearly defined roles. Working cooperatively, sacrificing your own glory for the greater good, a whole greater than the sum of its parts doesn’t fit with the view of America as a nation of rugged individualism. De Tocqueville, to whom Europeans look for insights into the US character, remarked upon the abundance of voluntary “associations” (churches and unions) that performed many of the roles of the larger, more intrusive European state.
Sociologists like Robert Putnam have recorded the collapse of these civic institutions in recent decades. But even if Americans are going down to the mall and – as Putnam famously observed – “bowling alone”, on TV they still love team sports. Perhaps they find them comforting precisely because they reflect qualities of cooperation and social solidarity that are missing from the dog-eat-dog capitalist economy. There is something almost socialist in the way that recently graduated college players are allocated to the professional teams: the worst-performing teams get first choice of the best players, so as to even up the competition. And maybe it is because of our more uniform, egalitarian societies that we Europeans are attracted to the idea of the individual genius outshining the rest through natural ability (though not through hard work, that’s so American).
For Americans the team is about working together for a common aim, and that common aim remains distinctively American. It’s not playing beautiful football, or helping the lesser players rise up to the level of the best. The goal is winning – at all costs. Armstrong has a single-minded commitment to a single goal: winning the Tour de France. He is an outstanding athlete and his team has been built around him, their egos subjugated to the task at hand. They are drilled, disciplined and dedicated. Now, there’s something very American about that.