In recent years, the French have conceived a conceit which paints them as suave men of diplomacy and Americans as brutish men of conflict. This week we offer them our reply in the form of an epigram: “Who needs a lance if our arm is strong?”
Yes, indeed. Our boy Lance Armstrong is over there once again to peddle American mettle. There can be nothing more quintessentially French than that gritty bicycle marathon known as the Tour de France. And you don’t need a scorecard to figure out that any roue in a cafe with a beret drinking a latte would gladly sell his first-born son if that would help a Frenchman win the darned race. Yet for six years, year after year, they are forced to watch that cucumber-cool American withstand the Pierre pressure to win handily. Now he leads again as he tries for a seventh crown; once more the Americans are the called while the French are the galled.
But we would be underselling Lance if we saw him only as an instrument for our petty delight in seeing a French comeuppance. He represents something much nobler and more universal, a beacon of the human spirit. That race is a contest of grit and persistence and endurance, goading reluctant muscles into grinding away on steep inclines. It is a test of resolve that makes running for a touchdown look like a walk in the park. It goes beyond the physical boundaries of athleticism into a realm that is governed only by the heart and the soul.
The fact that Lance added cancer a few years ago to his list of obstacles edges his achievement up into the zone of the heroic. To climb an Alp is challenge enough for any mortal; to climb it with the Angel of Death on his back marks him as one of the immortals. We all come up against annoyances and hurdles in life, everything from flat tires to layoffs to mothers-in-law. It all pales into insignificance when you watch a man drive a body wracked by chemotherapy to pursue a relentless pace of exertion.
The thing about fighting great diseases is the certain knowledge that all victory is temporary. When we say that a person “beat” cancer, we do not mean that they have been granted an exemption from dying. They wage a war to earn some more time. It’s like going to court to demand that an employer honors the last year of a contract that will certainly not be renewed. That takes a special brand of energy, to embrace this world so fervently that even a few years of tenure is worth a trip to a very demanding mat.
As a young man, I had a great mentor who gave me an amazing insight. The Talmud (Bava Batra 4a) mentions that when Herod rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem during the Roman Empire, its facade was the most stunningly beautiful blue. They add that whoever did not see the structure that Herod built “never saw a beautiful building in his life.” In fact, the blue was artistically layered to provide a visual effect that suggested the waves of the sea.
Why the waves of the sea? My teacher analyzed it as Herod’s defiance of a rapidly encroaching fate. He knew that under the Romans the Temple’s days were probably numbered. It was inevitable that before long they would see it as a locus of power that could not be relied upon to operate in their interest. Still, he looked at the waves gathering exuberant force to generate their surge despite knowing that the shore would break them into a sputtering dribble of foam. He built a structure of magnificent beauty at great expense even though it would only stand for perhaps a century.
Lance Armstrong is just such a force of nature, drawing his winning time from a pool of borrowed time. We would like to believe that he is the embodiment of our national spirit. He shows us that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, and if he can, he should do it faster and better than the other guy. Like him, we are not ashamed to wear the mantle of winners, knowing that we have battled for every half-step of progress. We’re good and we know it, but we don’t look down on you unless you’re French and you have done it to us first.
We are not a nation of bullies and our weapon of choice is a smile. We have true grit like Rooster Cogburn; our conversation is sincere and not sarcastic. We prefer the war of business to the business of war. If the French insist on being supercilious, so be it: they are small fry, small potatoes. And as long as old Lance is out there breaking fast, rest assured that they are toast.