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Spread The Word.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

 

Tom Demerly in the International Triathlon in Nice, France 2004

It occurs to me that there are four human experiences that bring people together around the world: Commerce, disaster, war and sport.

It’s sad that two of those four reasons are founded in calamity, but such is the nature of our species.

In terms of the continuation and improvement of the species the two greatest hopes we have are commerce and sport. Commerce, especially in the Internet age, erases borders and warps time. It melts language barriers and spans distance. As dumb a species as we often times are, one universal understanding is that, given the choice between making a buck or fighting a war, making a buck is almost always the more desirable alternative. That, I will argue, is the primary motive for globalization. Peace through superior buying power.

Parallel to the economic motive of commerce is a moral motive of spreading good will and reinforcing the notion that we all operate under the same rule sets and ethics- or at least hope to. And that is where sport comes into the global scheme of things.

The role of sport in human society is probably more important now that it has been at any point in the history of mankind because of our ability to communicate and travel.

That’s where you come in.

As an athlete, you are appointed de-facto ambassador of the United States and the species in general. So, as an athlete, you have a moral and ethical obligation to society and our species to spread the good word about sport, following the rules, being a good person and all that healthy stuff.

With your new appointment comes an assignment: Leave the country to race.

I’ve raced on all seven continents (yes, including Antarctica). The predominate experience I take away from this is that we are more the same than we are different. People want the same basic things. This is the message we need to spread, the experience we need to have, the lesson we need to teach.

If you are a student of US and world history you may recall periods of what historians refer to as “isolationism”. If this rings a bell then you know that periods of isolationism, like 1921 to 1933 in the U.S., are usually followed by periods of calamity. Usually economic problems and war. When people only look after themselves, problems begin. The very definition of isolationism contains the phrase “advantages without obligations". In any relationship, from intimate to global, this arrangement is unsustainable. Sooner or later we are obliged to take our show on the road.


People in every country are caught up in their own lives. As American athletes, we have the privilege of traveling to almost any country in the world but are often so busy paying mortgages and leading our day to day lives that we simply become self absorbed. In an odd paradox the very privilege people die for every minute around the world we tend to squander: The sacred privilege to come and go as we please, anywhere in the world.

To put this in perspective a survey done of 19 year old Saudi citizens revealed that fully 50% of those polled said they wanted to immigrate to the United States. Think about that: Half the young population of this country- the future of that country- wants out. It is the most treasured ambition in their lives. Additionally, when you consider the number of countries that are constrained from global travel due to economic and political restrictions our ability to travel is perhaps the most valuable thing we possess as Americans. It is the very real manifestation of Liberty and Freedom and is so powerful it extends well beyond our borders.

A common topic of conversation here is how to qualify for “The Big One”, The Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. My buddy Lew Kidder once told me the easiest way for Americans to get into Kona is to do Ironman Japan. For some reason, the roll-down and qualification standard there tend to favor US athletes. The same has been true of Ironman Korea and the former Ironman Malaysia (now defunct).

I’ve had this conversation with a lot of friends and customers in our store. A million reasons surface as to why people will spend enormous amounts of money and go to great lengths to stay in the US and do Ironman Wisconsin, Ironman Lake Placid and other domestic races but completely ignore Ironman New Zealand, Australia and Japan.

When I mention this idea to customers they often react like I am suggesting they go to Mars to race. I do hear their concerns over logistics and expense, and they are somewhat valid, but only to a degree. When you have a family getting your significant other and a couple little ones half way around the world is a big, expensive job that certainly infringes on the solitary mindset necessary to have a good race.

But at the same time I can argue that, after training for the better part of a year and preparing to spend what amounts to thousands on what also may be the most important race of your life do your really want to do it in exotic Wisconsin?

And what about kids? I don’t have kids- but I think taking the kids to as many places as possible is a good way to help them be better educated, more empathetic and better citizens in the global community. As for being able to afford it, well, I guess that boils down to a matter of priorities. Will an extra 500 square feet in an exclusive new development really be as valuable as enriching your child’s life with a first hand exposure to other countries, other cultures, other languages? How will your children learn that those little people in the box on CNN are actually living, breathing human beings just like they are? During the 2004 Presidential election a poll of college students opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan revealed that most of them could not find either country on a blank map of the world.

You’re right, I’m not a parent and likely never will be. But if I were one, I would put traveling with my kids and showing them the world pretty high on my list of values.

So I’ll press my case that as Americans and more importantly, American athletes, we should exercise our privilege to race around the world.

As an athlete, especially a citizen athlete, you show other nationalities that you value and respect them when you travel to another country to participate in their races. You bring valuable commerce to the country and leave with priceless experiences. You teach them that Americans are kind and understanding people willing to reach out to the rest of the world in every capacity.

In 2001 I did a race called The Jordan Telecom Desert Cup. This event was the World Championship of the obscure sport of desert racing. It was a non-stop 105 mile running race from Wadi Rum, Jordan, to Petra, Jordan in relatively close proximity to the Iraqi border. The race was about 8 weeks after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. About 20 hours into the race I was descending a desert mountain pass on the course and had just moved into the position of top American competitor. That wasn’t a big deal since, understandably, there were only about 13 Americans in the entire event. But it was important to me. I wore an American flag on my race uniform as I always do when I race outside the US. I found what appeared to be a primitive donkey road and began to follow it since it was on course with the race directions. In the Desert Cup you navigate by yourself from check point to checkpoint with a map and compass. Winding down this mountain pass as quickly as I could I came a across a man pulling a burro with large sacks on its back. I stopped running so as not to alarm him in the early morning twilight. When I entered Desert Cup I made a point to learn a few Arabic phrases in the hopes they might smooth things over if I got lost in the desert. One of the phrases was “good morning”. I attempted a greeting in Arabic as I overtook him on the donkey trail. He looked rather stunned, quite understandably, that I had come out of no where in the early morning twilight in the middle of the Jordanian desert. When he saw the flag patch on my race uniform his face lit up. He spoke in good English, “Ahhh, America… American. Welcome. My friend, welcome to Jordan. All Jordanians welcome you….” He made a wide sweeping gesture with his arm as if to pull a curtain back on the landscape as the sun lit the desert stage, “You are always welcome in Jordan my friend… We are peaceful to you.”

I continued down the mountain and thought of the man’s greeting. That he must be aware of the things happening. That his response could have been any number of things, some none too hospitable. But he was gracious, dignified and warm. And as an athlete, I had gone one very small step of beginning to mend a terrible rift.

Now, I know that a chance meeting between strangers in the desert early in the morning does not solve the Mideast peace problem. But it addresses a broader issue one person at a time, man to man, face to face. And it is hard to hate someone when you look them in the eyes. It is easier to understand when you have seen their life, eaten their food, listened to their language and slept under their sky.

As an athlete, when you race in other countries, you spread the word. Not all Americans are greedy. Not all Americans are fat. Not all Americans are impatient and rude. Not all Americans wear cowboy hats. Not all Americans are consumed by materialism. You show people that their way of life, the things that surround them and the things they value are valuable to us too. And that builds understanding. One person, one athlete, at a time.

If you are new to international travel I know that there are concerns. But the wealth of experiences that await you on your way to crossing a foreign finish line are so much greater than the minor affairs you must overcome in the course of getting there.

As citizen athletes we are the best ambassadors for our country. Fit and attractive as a group- well educated, disciplined and relatively affluent. I know for a fact that often times when I race in other countries the competition alternately is gunning for “the Americans” or utterly intimidated by them. Being an American in a foreign race brings with it an allure unmatched by any other nationality. That is a distinction to be worn with humility and honor, strength and integrity.

American athletes on the big stage of the world have shown they are a slice right down the middle of Americana, and they typify every aspect of our citizenship- the full spectrum from admirable to deplorable. So for you guys, the admirable ones, it’s up to you to spread the word.

In the Athens Olympics an American gymnast was awarded the Gold Medal by a scoring tabulation error but, in a display of one of the uglier traits of American society, argued somewhat pitifully that it was his to keep. As Americans we are also fallible, and I wonder if he realized his Gold is forever tarnished. An American cyclist tested positive for cheating but also walked away with a Gold Medal, tarnished, but still gold in color even if tarnished in spirit. I often wonder if either athlete had realized how valuable it would have been to do the right thing as opposed to doing the winning thing. What if the gymnast who won by the scoring error had humbly offered to exchange medals with the Korean athlete (who rightfully won) in private with a hand shake and congratulations. What if the cyclist had relinquished his medal and stepped off the podium, allowing another man to climb onto it.

Incidents like this typify the ugly side of America: Win at all costs, make excuses later. This is the side we must eradicate. I don’t think that is how you and I are. The Olympic gymnast and cyclist are the exceptions, not the rule. And that is why it is up to us to spread the word about American athletes, one person, one race at a time, all over the world.

I have customers in my store who conduct themselves better in the athletic arena than some Olympic athletes. Matter of fact, all of them do. That is why the responsibility to spread the word rests on you and I.

When I think of Olympic athletes I prefer to think of two of the finest people and athletes I have known, World Champion Triathlete Sheila Taormina and 9-time Tour de France finisher Frankie Andreu. Both have consistently demonstrated their fine character through exceptional athleticism, sportsmanship, and integrity. Both have done a model job of projecting the true character of fine Americans and American athletes all over the world. These two have set an example for all of us to follow.

Several years ago a talented local racer named Matt Kowalski won an important local triathlon by a significant margin. It was no surprise since Matt had been winning all season long in much bigger races than this. So when Matt won, no one questioned it. But the instant Matt crossed the finish line he walked over to an official and informed them that he had gone off course during the run accidentally. He wasn’t certain if he covered the correct distance or course. No one saw it. No one knew. But he disqualified himself. Matt had the humility and honor to do the right thing instead of the winning thing. I know Matt’s father also, a fine man, and I knew why it was never a question in Matt’s mind what the appropriate thing to do was. In addition to having the honor to know it, he had the strength to do it. That is strength, honor and will that can’t be measured in minutes per mile or miles per hour. It is bigger than that.

When people in other countries see you in a race doing your best, no matter how good that may be, they see Americans as they are: Human beings, like them, wanting all the same things and aspiring to the same goals. They see that we are more alike than different.

In September I did the Isostar Nice Triathlon in Nice, France. It was a tough race and I had a bad ankle. When I crossed the finish line I was hobbled by the punishing 18+ mile run and difficult bike course. I traveled to France by myself and had to get my bike and gear out of the transition area and back to my hotel room following the race. I was a rather pathetic sight using my bike as a crutch and limped, slightly stooped over under my big transition bag, back to my hotel. On my way to the hotel I passed along a typically French avenue lined with colorful café’s just coming to life for the evening meal. A woman seated in one of the café’s saw the medal around my neck and the flag on my hat. She proclaimed something loudly in French, "Look, un Américain, il a fini. Félicitations au him! Applause pour lui, si vous …” and the patrons of the café started clapping. A man at the corner table stood and clamped his hand on my shoulder, “Le bon travail, bien fait, manière d'aller…” He shook my free hand and then raised his wine glass. “Puits fait…!” “Well done” he said, “well done”. and with his toast I learned that regardless of nationality all athletes are the same. The same in triumph, the same in failure, the same in humility, the same in disgrace.

So, when athletes in the Olympics like the gymnast and the cyclist show America’s darker side, it us up to people like Sheila and Frankie, you and I to set the record straight about American athletes. And that is another reason why we must travel to race: To fly the flag, show that we are good people and spread the word about sport and Americans in sport.

Perhaps more than any other group in American society, it is up to us, the athletes, to spread the word.

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© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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