Marion Jones, the fastest woman in the world and occasional Nike spokesperson, has made it clear that we Americans don't give our track stars the respect they deserve. She's right.
And now, as the rest of the world is riveted to coverage of the 2000 Tour de France, another glaring inequity has crystallized: Lance Armstrong, the 1999 Tour champion and surely the most charismatic cyclist in the world, has captured the lead in this year's Super Bowl of cycling. So what's leading off American sports coverage? Rip-roaring stories about yet another intensely boring All-Star game.
There's absolutely no excuse for the oversight. Armstrong is an editor's dream: He's charming, energetic, extraordinarily easy on the eyes, a new father with a gorgeous wife. And did I mention that he also happened to beat advanced testicular cancer after it spread through his lungs and brain, and then went on to win last year's Tour?
If anyone deserves to be on the front page of every major newspaper and sports magazine, it's Armstrong. He has a very strong case to make America's Greatest Sports Figure. This guy powers himself up mountains using only his quadriceps and a bicycle. Most Americans would get winded driving these peaks, for Pete's sake. But instead of following Armstrong and his teammates over the cragged peaks of Europe, we're treated to ad nauseam stories about Tiger Woods, whose accomplishments are myriad, to be sure, but whose claim to greatness lies more with skill and mental determination rather than those combined with true athletic prowess.
What does this man have to do to get our attention? We've seen that winning the grueling Tour doesn't translate into instantaneous celebrity on American soil; heck, Greg LeMond won it three times, twice after being shot during a hunting accident, and mentioning his name in most sports bars will get you nothing more than a blank stare.
It's a mystery: Why do we shun our pedaling heroes? The only explanation I can come up with is that we're just intimidated by the whole cycling world. The physical and mental stamina required to win a Tour is worlds beyond anything demanded in traditional American sports (which may be why Americans are so put out by cycling most of us realize we can never, ever be that fit, and it makes us vaguely uncomfortable). So we go back to our putting greens and swinging our little metal sticks, and avoid contemplation of our inadequacies.
Then there's the possibility that our aversion to cycling could be as simple as our antipathy toward all things French. Anyone who has ever eaten in a restaurant masquerading as "French" in America's heartland knows we must harbor enormous animosity toward francophone contributions to our culture (otherwise, why would we do those unspeakable things to soufflé?). If this is the case, I urge my fellow Americans to swallow their ire and embrace the Gallic challenge of cycling, if only to extend Lance the respect he deserves. I know we can do it. After all, we did learn to love and respect french fries.