Thoughts en route to Louisville... where I am clearly not among the top ten fastest cross racers on the flight.
The other day Belgium’s voice of cycling, Michel Wuyts, was recorded in the Louisville airport grumbling about the World Championships of Cyclocross coming to the United States. I like Wuyts, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, but he mentioned that the support wasn’t good here, that the event organizers were underfunded until a Belgian sponsor came on board, and generally that America was a big place where you had to take airplanes to get around, so the sport couldn’t bring in an audience like it does in Belgium. It’s possible he just doesn’t like the idea of importing their home sport to a country which hasn’t earned the right to host the worlds, or something to that effect. In any event, he predicted that our first brush with the Cross world championships would be our last.
I don’t take issue with his points, per se, except the last one -- forever is a long time. Still, as quickly and enthusiastically as Cross has grown in the US, I won’t equate any show of enthusiasm I see this weekend with that of a Belgian race, having never been to Kerstperiode or Namur or Koppenbergcross. I’m sure whatever awesomeness we muster won’t match the sport’s highest pitch. America will always be best at supporting American sports. Twas ever thus. Sorry soccer (or congratulations?).
Despite all that, and even if Wuyts’ factual arguments are right, and even if the crowds at the races in Louisville are small and so(m)ber, I can see some real and lasting value to Louisville 2013. Speaking of soccer... I’m off the grid as I write this, so I’ll provide some cites later if possible. But is this much different than what people in Europe were saying in 1994 when the FIFA World Cup came to the US? That we had no real natural support for the sport. That it sucked having to fly from match to match. That the sport wouldn’t suddenly take off when the circus left town.
Well, guess what? Soccer is our #1 participation sport now, drawing kids away from all the other big sports. As a parent I can assure you, it’s the first sport you go to, the easiest and most sensible place to start, and the one with the biggest enrollment (in our region anyway). And I’m not just talking about the babysitting level; by age 10 kids are flocking to select teams and playing weekend tournaments in Arizona. It starts big and grows from there.
At the pro level, MLS isn’t on par with the Premiership or La Liga, but it’s here nearly 20 years later and it’s growing. The hugeness can be debated but MLS has benefited from more than just savvy management. Go to a Portland Timbers match -- or don’t, because you can’t get tickets. You can maybe get tickets to see their development team. Try Seattle, where the larger stadium means you can probably get in, and you can march with the club supporters down Third Ave from Pioneer Square, right down the street, to the match. The appetite for men’s pro soccer is real. Women’s soccer has struggled on the pro level but it is hanging on.
Now, comparing cyclocross to soccer is like comparing Mauritania to Russia (one is bigger, the other is more fun). The end game for cyclocross in the US probably isn’t marching mobs and giant stadiums. It’s growth, for both the US scene and for its contribution to the international sport. If Wuyts and other skeptics don’t see this, then they’re missing the point, and if they are dismissing the possibility, then they’re wrong.
You can’t measure the event by its tangible effects -- crowd size, quality of current US riders, etc. You can’t measure the impacts of hosting a world championship by what happens in the next five years. It’s not like, oh, salmon populations where you can plant some adults in a stream, watch them spawn, and count the returnees five years later. The benefits of Louisville 2013 will extend beyond the tangible.
I liken this and other sports milestones to, oh, public art projects. If you drop a million on a Picasso, the shorter-sighted bean-counters and naysayers will tell you you’ve wasted that money. They’ll look right for a while, maybe decades, but when something that boosts the culture gains a foothold and becomes a permanent addition, its value only appreciates. Did people bitch and moan about the Eiffel Tower 130 years ago or whenever it was built? I guarantee you the project was described in terms nowhere near as kind as the present reality -- an indispensable, iconic draw that has paid for itself a zillion times over. Big art thingies inspire people.
And so do sports. In fact, inspiration has always been the main seller for most sports. That’s not the only hook, but it’s the most common one. Go to an NBA game in person sometime, sneak down to the expensive seats if you can, and watch the athleticism. You are nearly certain to be blown away. Hockey, football -- the speed of it all. Stodgy old baseball too. Up close, it stops being a contest of wins and civic pride and reverts back to an awesome human achievement to behold. Cycling’s gifts are more obvious, even on TV, where the pain on riders’ faces or the speed of a bunch sprint will blow your mind.
Cyclocross has a chance to inspire us up close this weekend. I’ve seen the Fidea Boys in Seattle so I know that, like other pro sports, seeing it in person from two feet away is breathtaking. Cross Vegas and the other big races here can’t reach people outside the cycling community, but send us a World Championships and that’s a totally different thing. We Americans like big things here, we notice them. It speaks to our (arguably unhealthy) self-image when you lend us your best and brightest sources of inspiration. It doesn’t weaken your hold on your treasures -- you can have them back right afterwards.
Just lend them to us long enough for that inspiration to disseminate to the people. We have a lot of people. Twenty years from now we’ll have even more people. And if I were a betting man, I’d wager that a lot of them will recall fondly what started with this weekend’s races.