Witnessing the reaction in Old Europe to champion cyclist Lance Armstrong's record-breaking sixth Tour de France win, I was reminded of a telling scene in Chariots of Fire, the Oscar-winning movie about the 1924 British Olympic team.
In it, two Cambridge University dons confront Jewish student and runner Harold Abrahams (played by Ben Cross) and accuse him of adopting a professional attitude—of striving for individual success at the expense of esprit de corps. Abrahams's restrained but angry reply includes this memorable riposte: "You yearn for victory just as I do, but achieved with the apparent effortlessness of gods."
My seat in Old Europe is in Munich, from which I watched not only Armstrong's extraordinary, awe-inspiring performance but the tangible reluctance among European observers to acknowledge it as such. After he achieved his record-breaking title, a BBC reporter went out of his way to rank the American biker below several past Tour greats. During the three-week race, rumors of drug-taking were revived by the French and others, though the five-time champion and cancer survivor had never failed a drug test.
On the German TV station I watched, Armstrong's early wins in the mountains were attributed to his team members' assistance, his dominance in the two individual time trials was played down, his rivals—no matter how visibly inferior—were lavished with praise and attention while the real star was virtually ignored. When Armstrong snatched a last-second victory from a German biker in a stage he did not need to win, a stunned German commentator struggled for words to describe the Texan. "He's so . . . ambitious," he said finally, echoing the Cambridge dons' distaste.
There is another thread that connects these two stories. Harold Abrahams's critics were classic anti-Semites of the upper-class British variety, who regarded the Jewish runner's single-mindedness and intensity as the hallmarks of a "tradesman"—in other words, a Jew. Lance Armstrong's European critics—even if they are not overtly anti-American—resent even more than his dominance of what has traditionally been a European sport his very American style of success. He trains too hard for them, plans too carefully, strives too relentlessly. He does not wear his talent lightly or camouflage his intense desire to win. Success at any price, they imply, just as Abrahams' critics accused him of abandoning the ideals of an amateur in "a headlong pursuit of individual glory."
On one point, at least, Armstrong's European critics are right. Striving for success, like following one's dream, is a quintessentially American trait. Taken together, the two have made millionaire moguls of uneducated immigrants, powerful politicians of low-born nobodies, world-famous inventors of basement tinkerers, and great sports champions of disadvantaged youths like Armstrong. The natural home for ambitious dreamers, whatever their nationality, remains the United States.
In Europe, as British author J.K. Rowling experienced when her Harry Potter books began to earn serious money, too much success, like too much popularity, is held to be suspect. Here a high degree of competitiveness is regarded as distasteful or unseemly. Ambition shouldn't be too raw or the will to win too strong. Americans, on the other hand, see competitiveness not as a dirty word but as a natural accompaniment to achievement. We see achievement itself as something to be celebrated, especially if it is hard-won. Yet our foreign critics are mistaken when they imply that American achievers seek to win at all costs.
The truth is more that ambitious Americans are driven—truly driven—not only to do their best but to prove their worth time and again. "I believe in the pursuit of excellence and I'll carry the future with me," Harold Abrahams announces to his elitist critics in Chariots of Fire. The future he refers to may have begun 80 years ago, but he could have been speaking for Lance Armstrong today.
Emily Berns, a former editor in New York, has been living in Munich since 1990.