I used to get so angry when my French colleague claimed that Lance Armstrong had used performance enhancing drugs. At the height of his powers in 2004, he had never, ever tested positive despite a deluge of tests. Lance was a phenom who became World Champion at age 23, and now he had survived cancer to out work, out think and out plan his European competitors to consecutive Tour de France titles. But the French insisted. Particularly grating was “Oh Ed, don’t be so naive”, delivered in that nasal French accent with all the wind power a five foot two inch woman could generate.
It took me five years to figure out what she meant. Last year, I came across an Alexander Wolff article in Sports Illustrated that contrasted the cycling cultures in Europe and America. For developing young European cyclists, performance enhancing drugs are an acceptable and expected part of the sport. A positive drug test carries little stigma, and cycling’s governing body still considers Bjarne Riis the winner of the 1996 Tour de France winner even though he later admitted to drug use during his victory. Jacques Anquetil, five time winner of the Tour de France, said that anyone who thought a cyclist could make it without pharmaceuticals was “an imbecile or a hypocrite.” The British cyclist Tom Simpson claimed “If it takes 10 to kill you, I’ll take nine.” Apparently he can’t count, since he died on the slopes of Mount Ventoux in the 1967 Tour de France. “Lance is on drugs” to a French person does not imply “Lance is a bad guy.” He’s just playing the same game as everyone else in the peleton.
Diving in soccer plays the same role as drugs in cycling: a morally suspect but potentially hideable act that Europeans deem a part of the sport. It’s part of a more general nonchalance towards authority that characterizes our friends across the Atlantic. In Italy, people often ignore traffic lights, fail to pay parking tickets, or even avoid their income taxes. Since cultural attitudes translate to the soccer field, “the impassioned two-handed mamma mia pleading with the referee” as described by Franklin Foer (think Andrea Pirlo of AC Milan) seems like a regular part of any Serie A match. Diving is such a part of the game that entire television shows are devoted to slow motion replays of fouls and referees retire from the pitch to become television commentators and politicians. Can you imagine Ed Hochuli teaming up with Al Michaels on Sunday Night Football?
Americans, on the other hand, don’t accept cheaters. There is no tacit acknowledgement that drugs or diving fit in our image of a winner. Lance would lose millions of dollars in endorsements if anyone could prove he used performance enhancing drugs. The fraction of lost wealth would drawf that of an adulterous Tiger Woods. Have sex with 121 women? Well, at least he can still play golf. Increase your red blood cell count artificially? No soup for you. Is this morally superior attitude necessarily for the best? Does our Disney World culture delude us into thinking that seven almost perfect Tour de France wins are possible without drugs? Isn’t it easier, maybe necessary, to side step a few rules on the way to the top, whether in soccer or the corporate world? Maybe we should be more European and tacitly acknowledge the faults of humanity. But, then again, maybe Lance is clean.
The American distain for cheating carries over to soccer, as the number one response when I ask my friends why they don’t watch more soccer is “But what about the diving?” Well, consider the US Men’s National Team. Following these guys in international matches and with their club teams, I can’t name a single one who consistently dives or fakes the extent of a foul. In a recent match against Turkey, Clint Dempsey got fouled hard but got up and walked it off. Yes, hockey fans, it hurts without all that protective padding. The US probably won’t win the World Cup, but they’ll play the morally aesthetic game without the mamma mia theatrics. The anti-diving culture extends to Major League Soccer, our rapidly improving domestic league, as Swede Freddie Ljungberg found out last year when he received a second yellow card and ejection for diving. In the games I’ve watched this year, only Emilio Renteria, a Venezuelan playing with the Columbus Crew, has spent an excessive amount of time singing to the grass after a foul. Be proud, diving isn’t a part of American soccer.