The Summer of Skepticism
When spectators jeered Michael Rasmussen, a world-class Danish cyclist, at the end of a long day's climb through the Pyrenees in the Tour de France last week, they turned the sporting world upside down.
The fans were not upset because Rasmussen had performed badly. He had in fact set a blistering pace to clinch what looked like ultimate victory in the bicycle race that is France's summer glory and concludes today in Paris. The spectators were booing precisely because Rasmussen (and others in the race's leading rank) had performed like Superman.
His numbers were too good to be true without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs, the fans had concluded. They did not need to wait for the scientific testing of athletes that is redefining the public's faith in sports industries on both sides of the Atlantic.
Their instinctive judgment -- which was validated a few hours later on Wednesday when Rasmussen's embarrassed team expelled him from the race -- parallels the increasingly skeptical reaction voiced by many American baseball fans as Barry Bonds has closed in on Hank Aaron's home-run record this summer. Even golf became embroiled in controversy this month when old pro Gary Player said some championship golfers now use banned substances to produce "massive change" in themselves and their scores.
Former champs do not take kindly to being erased from the record books by chemicals. "It is impossible to say who is the best cyclist of this generation," observed Greg LeMond, an American who won the Tour de France three times before retiring 13 years ago as performance-enhancers came into the race. "Doping increases a cyclist's capacity by 30 percent. At the top form of my career, I could not have finished in the leading 15 in the Tour today," LeMond told French journalists last week.
It is not just steroids that make this a global summer of doubt and distrust for the sports industry, which depends on public respect for heroes and their accomplishments. Allegations of game-fixing by a referee in the National Basketball Association and arrests of National Football League stars have diminished confidence as well.
And it is not just in sports that faith in leaders and heroes flags. We in journalism are no strangers to the process of building up celebrities, idols and politicians -- and then tearing them down. But the destruction arrives more quickly and with greater violence and vengeance today. The sports controversies are only a highly visible part of the zeitgeist of this Inquisitional Age.
Defense always trails offense: New medical technology makes cheating in sports easier and more tempting, before even newer technology ensures detection. Every athlete (with a little laboratory help) can become for a time his own pharmacy, just as on the Internet every person can become a newspaper publisher. And on YouTube everyone becomes his or her own movie producer, CNN interviewer hoping to embarrass or even derail presidential hopefuls, or both.
In Iraq, every man can become his own guerrilla army by setting off improvised explosive devices, which are often constructed by small gangs that sell their deadly know-how to investors who seek returns in the form of mayhem and disruption. The perverted genius of Mohamed Atta on Sept. 11, 2001, was to use a few fuel-heavy American airliners as al-Qaeda's air force.
This era's miniaturization of power in the hands of the individual favors destructive forces rather than creative ones at present. In their very different ways, devastating new military technologies and their wide availability, the Internet, and the greatly increased flow of money, goods, ideas and people across national borders have all wrought changes that defenders of the existing order struggle to comprehend and counter.
The most vindictive bloggers and many others eager to push the mainstream media, established politicians or other remnants of the status quo off a stage that they want to occupy smash reputations with abandon to call attention to themselves. What do they have to lose in the unpoliced badlands of the ether? They contribute to a general deepening of cynicism in the land at no perceived cost to themselves.
But deeply polarized nations that devote an inordinate amount of their time and energy to hunting and prosecuting both real villains and convenient scapegoats -- at the expense of failing to recognize and respect heroes and helpers of the common good -- do pay an enormous collective price. Such nations descend into easily manipulated despair and resentment that inevitably lead to ever greater destruction. Americans would do well to ponder that in a summer of doubt and division.