This is a story about Chris Horner, but it's also a lot bigger than Chris Horner. This is a story about Lance Armstrong and Mark McGwire, Michael Johnson and Marion Jones. It's also a story about the 1980 Olympic Hockey Team, Texas Western, the Springboks, the Miracle Mets, and Buster Douglas. Heck, it's even a story about Rocky Balboa. So it's a BIG story, but we have to start somewhere. The question is where...
And that's just the problem, isn't it? The story you tell changes depending on where you begin. You can either start with Chris Horner and what happened today on a severely slanted road in the south of Spain, or you can start with the long history of cheating in cycling. You can start with a 41-year-old (almost 42 as every commentator is quick to point out), recently injured cyclist who has never finished highly in any of cycling's big three races, or you can start with Lance Armstrong, EPO, blood tranfusions and all the dirty secrets of Team Discovery Channel, and Team Astana, and various doctors and team directors now either banned or arrested or both.
This storyline has played out many times in sports, but nowadays the fairy tale is on life support. We're all jaded. When Adrian Peterson is called "superhuman" for his recovery from a torn ACL we're naturally skeptical. When Chris Davis (or Brady Anderson before him) comes out of nowhere to improve his stats by an altogether unlikely measure, we have our doubts.
We've all been burned, and in cycling, perhaps more than any other sport, the burn of the betrayal is still incredibly fresh. The fallout from Lance Armstrong is very much ongoing, and, as much as cyclists wants to claim they have cleaned up their act (pointing to improved testing and openness in the pro ranks), the cold reality is that new testing is always being distanced by new cheating. Every achievement may well be nullified if we just wait long enough for the technology to catch up to the new ways of getting around the rules.
Sports have entered a brave new world where achievements are never written in stone. Numbers that have signified something monolithic are now etched into record books in light pencil, ready to be stricken when the day comes that the athlete is exposed for what they truly are. This is a problem in both the college and professional ranks in the most popular sports like football and baseball, and it's a problem in some of the niche sports like cycling and Mixed Martial Arts. It's a problem across the board.
How can you believe in miracles when a large part of you wonders if the miracle is a sham?
That's the question before us now with Chris Horner and the story I'm going to tell you. I realize this story is going to require a willing suspension of disbelief, and our cynical side sometimes is incapable of going there, but I beg you to try. I think this matters a good deal and for reasons far surpassing sports. That may sound hyperbolic but I don't think so. This is the testing grounds for meaning in sports in the 21st century. It starts today with a seasoned pro cyclist from Oregon.
Chris Horner is a 41-year-old cyclist from Bend, who is now leading the Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain), one of cycling's three grand tours. He has won two stages in this year's event after dominating today's 10th stage to the Alto de Hazzallanas in unexpected and, frankly, befuddling fashion. He now holds the record not only for being the oldest person to win a stage in a grand tour but also for being the oldest person to lead a grand tour's General Classification after any stage. This is remarkable enough, but Horner has also never finished higher than ninth in a grand tour in his long career, he is coming back from Iliotibial Band Syndrome, has raced only one event this year (the Tour of Utah), and has not had a top ten result at any non-US race in the last two years.
This is clearly an unbelievable story.
And that's one place to leave things, but none of us know if it's the actual measure of these events. Either Horner is doing something of which we should all stand in awe, or he's cheating and he should be quietly swept out of the sport.
Worst of all, we can't know which. And that just plain sucks.
It sucks because this is a story every one of us wants to believe in. I don't mean that everybody loves Horner--that's far from the truth--but rather that the story represented by Horner transcends the human characters wrapped up in its minutia. Every one of us needs to know that David can defeat Goliath, that miracles do happen, and that the unlikeliest possibility can also be the one that gives us the most profound hope. I hope Chris Horner is doing what he's doing within the rules of the game not because I am cheering for him as an individual but because I am cheering for him as an idea: that there is more to the human spirit than age can define. On this day when 64-year-old Diana Nyad completed the first ever Cuba-America swim, I want to believe in a story of the human spirit that transcends sports and winners and losers. I want to believe in miracles because I want to believe that there is more to life than systematic decay, corruption and pride.
And I think the fact that all of us want this so badly is the very reason why we have so many cynics. Our walls of authenticity are now so thick that a miracle could be staring us in the face and we would remain unmoved. This is the worst casualty of the Lance Armstrong era: he robbed us of our hope in the human spirit. Nowadays, in cycling in particular, every winner is judged with a measure of suspicion; in football, though a team sport, it's much the same; in baseball,whenever a record is broken the whispers become more audible. This matters because each of us has lost our naivete and with it the one thing that most likely drew us to sports in the first place: the belief that we can overcome the impossible.
So, we really only have two faithful options: walk away or cheer on (a third option: staying around only to lob grenades at anybody and everybody who continues to believe in something better, is neither faithful nor worth our time). If you choose to walk away you are saved the heartache of watching your hero live long enough to become the villain, but you're also giving up on something that's not so easily gained back in your daily life. You're giving up on pure, unadulterated hope. Sure, the real world walks all over the dreamers who hold to such a silly thing as hope, but the real world is also what gives us Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke. You can take your real world and I'll hold out hope for something better. The only alternative is to cheer on. This requires some suspension of disbelief, but then again, so do many great stories. It's naive, but only if the thing you are cheering for can be defeated by a drug test.
I am not cheering for Chris Horner because the man himself matters all that much to me; I am cheering for what he embodies. I am cheering for an idea, not a person, and--if you're honest with yourself--so are you. We all cheer for a jersey, or a nationality, or a story, long before we ever cheer for a person. And we do this because we believe that the story is true even if the characters turn out to be otherwise. I believe that David can beat Goliath, that the little guy has a reason to stand up to fight, if only to win once in a hundred tries. I believe, so I cheer on. It may be naive, but it's the best way to keep hope in a broken world.