I recently helped a colleague start commuting regularly to work. He’s one of several people at work I’ve turned on to the joys of riding a bike every day. I offered some gear advice, helped him the first few times with routes, warned him about some of the usual hassles – Volvos with diplomatic plates, for instance – and how to integrate riding into working (hint: keep your suits at work and find a reliable Korean dry cleaner/tailor). We have a good cackle at the end of our rides toward home. Yes, the stress from some insane situations at work just melts away. Yes, we have more energy. Yes, we’re nicer and more present for our families and less distracted by other hassles. And yes, we’re healthier. What I said about riding was all true, he told me today. And I agreed.
In short, I’ve sold a few people on riding the bike, and they’ve gotten hooked. How does that happen? I don’t know, exactly. But I’ll tell you how it doesn’t happen.
Over the weekend, I was listening to ESPN radio. They were having a good chuckle at the improbable U.S. run at the Confederation Cup, an off-year version of the World Cup. The U.S. did pretty well and the host made the mistake of asking what it would take for soccer to cross over into the mainstream and hit it big – NFL big – in the United States.
In retaliation, soccer fans unloaded on him. About half were simply pleased to death that the U.S. did well in the Confederations Cup.
The other half enjoyed their 15 seconds of fame explaining, via text, email and phone call, that the U.S. is a stupid bad place because we are all fat and stupid and out of step with the rest of the world and like the NFL and we’re unsophisticated and maybe this will straighten us out and don’t make me take a breath because I’m on a rant here and America just blows compared to the soccer friendly countries and we have a new president who should help and why doesn’t ESPN knock hockey off the network (they did) and football (yeah right) and what the hell is wrong with them don’t they know it’s the biggest game in the world and…
This is simple sports chauvinism and it's stupid if you’re trying to win fans to your sport.
In fact, it does the opposite of winning fans to your sport. It alienates people from it.
On the merits of the claims of the rabid fans, I have news for you people. Soccer is the sport of the lumpenproles in most of the world. They don’t fancy themselves sophisticates who get it when all round them just don’t see their tortured genius. They don't fancy themselves much of anything, to tell the truth. They're mostly busy just trying to get along. If you are short on teeth, shirts, shoes and sobriety, and you live in a place which consumes less per capita per annum than the typical Real Hollywood Wives Personal Assistant does in the course of a morning, then soccer is likely your sport.
Excuse me, soccer fanatics. I meant, Foooot… ah-Bowl fahns. Because if you don’t say it right, that is like a semi-literate Honduran on a German team being interviewed in English by a Russian announcer at a friendly match in Turkey, it means you just don’t get the Foooot…ah-Bowl mystique. If you have tribal or religious or centuries-old political rivalries and The Officials no longer let you practice the blood feud, soccer is likely your sport. Birmingham City v. Wolverhampton, anyone? What, British racist skinheads not your fancy? Then would you care for a sophisticated serving of Catania-Palermo, with a side dish of Lazio-Livorno, washed down with a neat little shot of Celtic-Rangers?
But this is all irrelevant. I’m not trying to run down soccer, which I like alright, but to run down sports chauvinism generally. Yeah, it’s wonderful that soccer is popular in Europe and South America and in third grade classes alike. That doesn’t mean it’s right for everybody. If majority rule was the determinant of excellence, we’d all be striving to eat rice for every meal, we’d wear bluejeans everywhere (including at our own funerals) and we’d be stuck listening to Menudo. Or maybe Rush Limbaugh, who just might have the top talk political talk show worldwide.
You want to live in a world like that? I don’t. (No offense meant, Rush. Please don’t have me killed by Mr. Snerdly).
Arguing lifestyle/cultural supremacy as a selling point for your way of life is like telling people who hate spinach to eat spinach, and then telling them they’ll go to hell if they don’t convince themselves they love it. (Note to Self: Contact American Spinach Counsel and remind them not to do this). Ultimately, it’s a way to inculcate hatred of spinach in people who otherwise wouldn’t be enemies. The people you turn off – the people you convert to the spinach- (or soccer-) hating cause will tell others at the water cooler that the thing you are passionate about sucks. There’s nothing wrong with soccer fans worldwide. But understand that the superiority that the soccer fanatics are trying to push on us – the Euro- or MesoAmerican soccer culture that is supposedly superior to NHL or NFL or MLB fan-dom, involves getting wicked hammered; for many it involves rioting or streetfights based on blind rivalry and stupid grudges; and it involves causing the noses of the middle-to-upper classes in their respective countries to curl up in disgust.
Yes, that’s right, you heard it here first: soccer is not the darling of the elite in most of the countries cited; it’s their NASCAR, but without sweet V-8 iron, peaceful crowds, and most of all without NASCAR’s amazingly upscale fan demographics.
The attempt to shame people into loving a sport is always stupid and lame.
Thing is, people like what they will like. You don't sell a sport by attacking people who like other sports.
You probably know where this is going now.
I sometimes hear cyclists arguing for cycling by saying we'd be smarter and thinner and prettier and more in step with the rest of the world if we rode bikes a lot more. Racing would be more popular if Americans were just better people. If only there was more television coverage, everybody would love it. (Because if 6 hours of coverage of a flat stage of the TdF isn’t enough to turn people on to the sport, I don’t know what is…)
Do we know what pro bike racing really is?
American neo-pros are always shocked to have to go into a smoky bar and get their race number from some drunk old Belgian guy who is hammering gin and eating Frites with greasy fingers. We’re always shocked to hear about riders doing desperate things to compete and win. The pain of the riders sounds terrifying. A lot of the teams are run by sharp dealers. Supposedly premier races are run by shoddy promoters and sketchy sanctioning bodies. We’re appalled by all this. When a rider can’t handle fame and fortune and becomes a junkie, we act like it’s shocking that they didn’t handle their success well. It’s as if we expected something a lot better.
It’s like we’re the cycling counterparts of the evil half of the American soccer fans. Like we’re proselytizing for an idealized version of a sport that doesn’t actually exist, where the racers are all clean and articulate and faster than average, and all the other riders are cute Copenhagen girls on the just the perfect city bike. But this is our upscale image of the sport and the vehicle. Upscale foreign soccer, clean always exciting upscale bicycling... don't exist. Ultimately, it's just kicking a damn ball around or riding a damn bike, either of which is a great thing, but it's as simple and common as sneezing or walking.
Consider the possibility that maybe we’re cycling chauvinists, and that maybe cycling will sell itself in this country as it sells itself, no faster. Be open to making new converts, but don’t try to force people into it, and don’t lecture them about how dumb they are if they don’t ride. Particularly don’t lecture them about their inferiority to the Chinese, the Dutch, Africans. It doesn’t work, and believe me, if you talk to a Chinese or African cyclist, what they really want is to save up for a car. The Dutch… well… they sell a lot of dope in Amsterdam, I guess.
So what works to sell cycling, and our sport of racing? Well, Lance brought a lot of people into cycling, so did higher gas prices. The next great American cyclist - and there are some in the pipeline like (maybe) Tyler Farrar - may bring more people to racing. This is all good. The current boomlet is nice, maybe if we do some bike advocacy to make the world friendlier for riders, maybe if we talk up the sport in a positive way when asked, ask the boss for showers at work for commuters, maybe if we schedule a viewing party – for the last 90 minutes of a great TdF stage – we can win some converts.
But we shouldn’t start from the premise that there’s something wrong with people who just don’t get it. Yeah, our sport is the greatest sport there is – for us. Other people maybe just haven’t seen the light yet. If we want to win converts to the sport, it’s our job to show our light to them – not to curse them out for standing in the darkness.