Ribbon Chasers

When Competitiveness Consumes

Since his confession to Oprah Winfrey last month, Lance Armstrong’s psyche has been lanced and explored from many different angles. Some have deemed the man who collected millions for cancer research a psychopath, others are less judgmental but no less disappointed. Writing in Commonweal (January 11) before the Oprah interview, Timothy Schilling sighed, “I still love Armstrong. I love him in spite of the bad things I now must concede he probably did. I’ve done bad things myself, and I haven’t helped or inspired anywhere near as many people as Armstrong.”

It is, I suppose, best for those who have found a beacon in this fallen superman to forgive Armstrong his transgressions. And it is true, our popular culture takes too much gossipy delight in watching the lives of celebrities unravel. Nevertheless, for all the psychologizing and moralizing about the winged rider, there has not been enough reflection on Armstrong’s mad addiction to competition.

Banned from racing, Armstrong won’t be listening for a starting gun any time in the near future. To him that quietude feels like a gun at his head. In his Oprah revelations, Armstong didn’t gnash his teeth about the people’s lives he crashed with libel suits or about the dent he left in his beloved sport or, for that matter, about the cannonball he delivered to his own charitable organization, the Livestrong Foundation. Instead, what almost brought Armstrong to tears was the prospect that he might not be allowed to run in the Chicago Marathon when he turns fifty. Of all the things for the iron man to get mushy about!

Of course, we lionize the competitive spirit in our society, as though the willingness to measure yourself against others were the ultimate yardstick of what kind of person you are. But isn’t there something missing in an individual who feels like a shadow unless he is beating someone to some finish line?

Surely, part of the task of being a human being is to develop an understanding of what is most important in life. But the ribbon chasers can only get a fix on themselves by constantly comparing themselves to others. The Armstrongs of the world seem to imagine that if they win this race or maybe that literary award they will have gained irrefragable evidence of their own worth. After a victory, they might even gaze up and jab a finger at the heavens as though victory were evidence of being blessed by the very God who commanded us to be humble servants.

It is true that the world bows before badges and accomplishments. Triumph in competition brings a halo of sorts. Win a Tour de France or an Oscar and you’ll have people genuflecting in your presence. Our champions are akin to secular saints. But at another level the yellow champion’s jersey really only means that you were dogged in cultivating some talent you received in the genetic lottery. In most cases, the gift that you drove to the finish line does not advance the lives of your fellow human beings. It requires a fundamental focus on the self.

There is a powerful element of narcissism in the maniacal, Armstrong-like devotion to competition. Of course, there is a place for the arena. Going for the gold can serve to ignite a young person’s talents. It can help cultivate a garden of important virtues, but competition should not become the foundation of an individual’s life. Integrity, kindness, the ability to love, should be the attributes that decide our humanity. And you are not likely to find any kindness contests in the next Olympics.

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was a genius—an individual set apart by preternatural intellectual and literary talents. Nevertheless, he always reminded himself that his final measure would not be determined by the abilities that separated him from others. In his tender and challenging Works of Love, Kierkegaard warns, “Comparison is the noxious shoot that stunts the growth of the tree; the cursed tree becomes a withered shadow, but the noxious shoot flourishes with noxious luxuriance. Comparison is like the neighbor’s swampy ground; even if your house is not built upon it, it sinks nevertheless. Comparison is like the secret consumption’s hidden worm.” The need to measure ourselves by comparison with others is a worm that thrives in the loam of our relentlessly competitive society, and it is a worm that has gnawed into and consumed Lance Armstrong.

Published in the 2013-03-08 issue: 

Gordon Marino is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. His “The Existentialist’s Survival Guide” will be published by HarperOne in April.  You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/GordonMarino.

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