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Monday, July 29, 2002

Does the ability to sit on a skinny bicycle seat for hours on end and pump your legs like a madman make you a great athlete or merely a guy who does better without training wheels than most people?

-- Ron Borges, MSNBC Sports Commentator.

Occasionally someone in the media will say or write something so amazing at odds with reality, so colossally stupid, that I must wonder if they meant it more as satire than as a presentation of a seriously held belief. Generally I find this to be the case of anything from the mouth or pen of Ann Coulter, but this week it's Ron Borges who appears to have either taken leave of his senses or merely decided to opine about something of which he is completely ignorant.

His article questions whether Lance Armstrong's fourth consecutive victory in the Tour de France is a feat of athleticism and if Armstrong is an athlete at all. Borges's argument basically boils down to this: "He rides a bike, which anybody can do. Athletes do things that not everybody can do." This is sheer, total nonsense. The fact that I can walk down the street to the park and shoot baskets does not imply that Michael Jordan is not an athlete; nor does that fact that I can join a bunch of friends for a pick-up game of basketball mean that Barry Bonds is not an athlete. Borges writes, "Athletes, for my money, must do more with their bodies than pump their legs up and down." OK, fair enough. Then athletes must also do more with their bodies than swing a piece of wood at a ball, put on a pair of gloves and try to pound someone else into unconsciousness, skate around on some ice after a disc of hardened rubber, or toss a rubber ball through a metal hoop. Borges's attempt to reduce Tour de France-caliber cycling to "pumping the legs up and down" is completely disingenuous, precisely because I can describe any sport in an unflattering light.

Here is another bit of Borges's stupidity: How fast is he when they take the bike away? Is he as fast as Marion Jones? Is he as fast as Chipper Jones? Comparing an athlete in one sport to an athlete in another is almost always a ludicrous exercise. Consider Chipper Jones. I suppose that Borges is wondering if Jones or Armstrong would win a 50-meter sprint, or some such thing. Now, I suspect it would be Armstrong, but that's not relevant just now. What is relevant is this: how valid is any such comparison at all? If Armstrong attempted to play third base on a major league baseball team, he would probably end up looking foolish in the field and he'd almost certainly be a disaster at the plate. Jones would wipe the floor with him. But if you put Chipper Jones on a bicycle at the bottom of one of the French Alps during the Tour de France, I doubt he would even finish the stage, much less manage to keep up with the peloton. This is no indictment of Jones as an athlete, nor would Armstrong's inability to play baseball at major-league level reflect on him as an athlete. The skill sets demanded by the sports these two men play are completely different, and Borges's bizarre attempt to compare the two is a non-starter.

Borges's worst sentence, though -- in which he clearly demonstrates his monumental ignorance of cycling -- is this lovely chestnut: For my money, being the greatest athlete in the world involves strength, speed, agility, hand-eye coordination, mental toughness and the ability to make your body do things that defy description. Chief among them is not pumping your legs up and down while your feet are strapped to bicycle pedals. Is Borges suggesting that Lance Armstrong -- or any Tour de France rider at all -- lacks strength? A bicycle is not a mo-ped. It requires muscle power to go anywhere at all, even on a flat road. To ride up a mountain is so obviously a matter of strength that I have to wonder if Borges has ever even climbed onto a bicycle. The question of speed is frankly bizarre. I suppose that Borges wants to know how fast Armstrong can run the fifty yards or whatever. But I would be willing to bet that I can outrun some of the offensive linemen in the National Football League; does that imply that I am a greater athlete than they? Not for one minute. I certainly couldn't block a Bruce Smith, probably not for a single play, and absolutely not for an entire game. Speed is valuable in some sports, less so in others. By Borges's reasoning, Greg Maddux is not an athlete because his "speed" is almost never on display. (Anyway, the fact that Miles per Hour is a constant measurement of Tour de France coverage, from just what basis is Borges questioning Armstrong's speed?) As for agility, well -- I can't think of any other word besides "agility" to describe the ability these riders have to control their bikes as they descend a mountain, at very high rate of speed, on narrow and winding roads or the ability to ride in the peloton in the first place. Riding a bicycle also involves hand-eye coordination, especially when riding at the higher rates of speed where small stones can be threatening road-obstacles to as great a degree as potholes. And a bicycle is not a self-steering mechanism; tremendous hand-eye coordination is required just to keep from going off the road. (Another note on hand-eye coordination: it isn't all the same. Michael Jordan clearly has tremendous hand-eye coordination; his almost instinctive ability to move the ball in such a way to evade defenders and make the shot is legendary. But his hand-eye coordination did not prove very handy at all when he spent two years playing minor-league baseball; he was barely able to stay above the Mendoza line at AA ball. If he'd played AAA ball, his average would have been a train wreck, and I doubt he'd have even gotten a hit off any decent major-league pitcher.) As for the last two "habits of highly effective athletes" that Borges names, I can't think of a sporting event that demands more mental toughness than the Tour de France. And just completing the Tour -- pedaling over 1500 miles in three weeks, through some of the most mountainous country in the world -- certainly defies description to me. But then, I suppose Borges does this kind of thing himself every week -- that's what it would take for it to be the commonplace thing he thinks it is.

Lastly, Borges meditates on the fact that cycling is not one of the most popular sports in the US. Well, so what? Popularity of a thing means nothing. Heaven's Gate may have been the biggest flop of a movie of all time, but it's still a movie. Cycling most definitely is a sport, unless of course one is applying George Carlin's definitions of Sport (one of which being that it has to involve a ball). By Borges's reasoning, short-track speed skating is not a sport, and therefore Apolo Anton Ohno is not an athlete. Sorry, Ron. That dog won't hunt, and you know it.

All that said, I have to again wonder if Borges meant this at all, or if he is sitting back right now enjoying a laugh at the reaction to what he wrote. If he didn't mean it, then he's a lousy satirist. If he did mean it, then he's an idiot. So which is it?



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