I believe that we may have found the world's stupidest sports columnist (and, given the competition, that's saying something). As Lance Armstrong closes in on his fourth consecutive Tour de France title, Boston Globe and NBCSports.com sportswriter Ron Borges has the nerve to suggest that Armstrong is not an athlete, let alone a great athlete. "Athletes, for my money, must do more with their bodies than pump their legs up and down," Borges writes. "If that’s all it took, the Radio City Rockettes would have to be considered the greatest athletes of all time."
The column is full of such idiocy, presented in such an appallingly unenlightened manner that I have to believe Borges wrote it just to get a rise out of people, not because he actually believed anything he wrote. Rather than go line-by-line through the column, let's just focus on Borges's own definition of an athlete, to show how little attention he actually pays to the subject he's discussing:
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.
Element by element:
* Strength: Has Borges seenLance Armstrong's thighs? How does Borges think Armstrong manages to climb those mountains? Or does leg strength not count? If not, do we have to eliminate baseball Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, who generated much of the power for his fastball from his driving legs?
* Speed: Idiocy, utter idiocy. Armstrong is winning a race. He won today's time trial, which, in bicycling terms, was essentially a sprint. Borges dismisses this by asking how fast Armstrong would be without his bicycle. But what does Borges think powers that bicycle, a motor? Like all cyclists, Armstrong generates his speed from his legs (okay, he gets an assist from gravity on the downhills). Armstrong just generates more of it than his competitors.
* Agility: Facially, it may appear that there's not much room for agility in cycling, since the cyclist remains on the bicycle throughout the race. On the other hand, maneuvering through the peloton isn't exactly like walking alone through an open field. This also answers one of Borges's more ignorant comments: "He can pedal a bike better than anyone. He probably didn’t even need training wheels. But could he do it if someone was playing defense?" He does, Ron, he does.
* Hand-eye coordination: Note that by Borges's definition, soccer players aren't athletes (with the possible exception of goalkeepers). But, as we'll see in a bit, that actually fits with what ultimately underlies Borges's dismissal of cycling—something that has nothing to do with hands. In any event, it appears that Borges has forgotten that cycling involves more than simply moving one's legs up and down. There's also the not-so-small matter of steering.
* Mental toughness: The Tour de France requires racing day after day, often for four or five hours at a stretch, on treacherous road courses, at high speed and often in close proximity to other riders. There are no breaks, no timeouts, no halftimes. The concentration and mental toughness required to succeed in this environment is astonishing. I don't have it. Borges doesn't have it. The vast majority of those Borges would consider athletes don't have it.
* The ability to make your body do things that defy description: In the course of the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong sometimes achieves speeds in excess of 20 mph. Uphill. Climbing mountains. Based on what I see on the roads, most casual bicyclists have trouble maintaining such speeds on table-flat surfaces.
Borges seems to be laboring under the misconception that what Armstrong does is essentially a sped-up version of what ordinary people do casually on weekends. It is not. Casual bicycling bears no more resemblance to what Armstrong does than my shooting baskets in the driveway bears to what Michael Jordan did at the top of his game (and anyone who has ever seen me try to shoot baskets knows that there's no resemblance at all).
Toward the end of his column, Borges writes: "In recent years, a minority of media members in America have tried desperately to convince us that fringe sports such as cycling must be given their due." This, I think, is ultimately why Borges doesn't consider Armstrong an athlete: his sport is not popular. In America. (It certainly is popular in Europe; this is where soccer re-enters the picture). It's fine if Borges doesn't like cycling. I don't like boxing, the sport that Borges covers for the Boston Globe. But the fact that a sport isn't popular in this country does not mean that its champions are not athletes. To believe otherwise is an act of outrageous provincialism.
Update: Former competitive cyclist Armed Liberal, who knows better than I do, offers more specificity about the astounding speeds that the Tour de France cyclists achieve climbing the steep mountain roads. And in a comment to Armed Liberal's post, Kevin Raybould of Lean Left cites Borges's article as an example of "the Jim Rome-ing of sports commentary." I think Kevin's right. Jim Rome does good interviews, but too much of his commentary/schtick is calculated to rile up his listeners rather than to enlighten or inform. Borges's article is very much in that vein.