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
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
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
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
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
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
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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