Monday, September 3, 2012

Paul Ryan's Marathon Lie -- Should We Care?

This blog is predicated on the idea that there is some bleed-over between the values and practices of running and the values and practices of life. This bleed-over has now caught the nation's attention with the whole Paul Ryan marathon controversy. Even Nobel-Laureate and (let's face it) Democratic party shill Paul Krugman, who I doubt has much experience with running, has weighed in with his opinion.

All of my readers will be familiar by now with Paul Ryan's lopping an hour off of his marathon time. Runners don't like this, especially because Ryan laid claim to the holy grail of recreational running -- the three hour marathon. We know what it takes to run under three hours in the marathon. It's a pretty sacred line to cross as flippantly as Ryan did.

Whether Ryan was oblivious to the sacredness of that line or whether he chose to say he ran in the 2:50s because of that sacredness is something we will never know for sure.

But here's the question that's been nagging at me about this whole thing. There seems to me to be something false about the attempt to deduce a larger claim about Ryan's propensity to the truth in general from this simple statement. Is Ryan's statement a window into his soul or not? Krugman seems to think it is. I am less sure about that.

I've been around enough runners and competitive athletes to want to give Ryan the benefit of the doubt. There is something about overly competitive male individuals (and Ryan does seem to be one of these) that makes them go literally insane when sports are discussed -- much less competed in. I've known many a mild-mannered conscientious dude in ordinary life, who when put into a competitive situation becomes a strange kind of monster, willing to do pretty much anything to WIN. It seems to me that in most cases this sort of character flaw (and it is a flaw, and an odious one) seems to be isolated to the game or sport situation.

Perhaps the classic example of this is John McEnroe. As a sports announcer, the guy is witty, intelligent, nuanced, funny. As an athlete, he was a first class a-hole.

I spoke about this in my last post on Lance Armstrong. For the most part, it's best to keep the lines between sport and life as clear as possible. When they get muddied up all sorts of bad things happen. We start imagining life as a sort of competitive game about accumulating points. And, from the other side, we tend to idolize and hold up athletes as paragons of human behavior. Neither of these ways of thinking are wise.

So, on behalf of the sport/life distinction, I am going to give Ryan a pass on this one as a politician and as a human being. The athlete in me is still pissed that Ryan even considers associating himself with those who take the 3 hour marathon seriously and wonders a bit about his claim to have ascended forty 14ers in Colorado.

But is Ryan a "liar" now? Naw. I'm not ready to go there. I just wouldn't want to play ping-pong with the guy.

12 comments:

  1. As a genuine TwoFiftySomethinger, I'm loving all this talk about what a difficult accomplishment it is. Now I'm hoping Biden claims a sub-five mile.

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  2. So you're saying you ran a 4:01 marathon, Josh?

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    1. If I was running for office, I'd say I ran a marathon in under two hours. If people were foolish enough to vote for me, they'd believe anything.

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  3. The "lie" reminds me of "The Topper" in the Dilbert strips. http://search.dilbert.com/comic/Topper

    ...especially in the sense that he "ran {amazingly spectacular recreational running time}". but has since had back problems, so there's no way he could be challenged on it (except for the whole recorded race time history thing).

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    1. I wholeheartedly agree that as runners we should mock Ryan for this misspeak, and I think your allusion to Dilbert is perfect in this respect.

      As a society, we have trouble distinguishing between mocking someone in a good humored way for a forgiveable mistake and condemning them absolutely for an unpardonable sin. This Ryan controversy is a perfect case in point.

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    2. we are all so prickly and defensive, we are losing our sense of humour. not that we can't laugh at a joke if we get it... the problem is that we aren't getting the jokes at all.

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  4. "For the most part, it's best to keep the lines between sport and life as clear as possible."

    I don't think your writing would be possible if we completely kept the lines between sport and life clear. I think it's alright to blur the two sometimes. Sport is not only a great metaphor for life - it's something we can hang on to make life meaningful.

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    1. This is a good point, Kevin. When and how we choose to blur the lines is difficult, but I guess I'd say that in the case of someone like Paul Ryan, a politician not an athlete, it's pretty safe to keep sport and life apart. In the case of a figure like Lance Armstrong, you can't understand him without blurring the lines.

      The question of when, how, and to what extent we connect sport and life is pretty fascinating, once you get into it. Thanks, as always, for the comment.

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  5. hey Jeff - first off I love your blog! Just got turned on to it recently and I find your insight into training to be spot on and really appreciate the metaphysical lens you look at running thru - very inspiring stuff!

    That being said, I do not follow how you can reason through a post like the "art of the tempo run" and then in this one say "hey, sports are just sports and they don't say much about your character"..I just don't see how the two things fit together.

    The beauty of running (or any sport) is the way it takes the big things in life and turns them into digestible, bite size pieces where we can work on the hard things in life in a more manageable place. To me, this reasoning means we should attach even more importance to a straight untruth like this, it lets us know how Ryan processes information that might not be as friendly to his views of himself/policies as he would like. To follow your McEnroe example - I doubt McEnroe would claim he has was a mild mannered, well behaved man on the court (analogous to Ryan claiming he was a sub 3 hour marathoner). I think McEnroe would laugh a bit at himself and speak honestly about how sport challenges himself to confront anger.

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    1. Hi Anonymous,

      These are good thoughts. I guess I would say that the decision about where and how to blur the line between sport and life is an ethical decision, one that ought to be made intelligently and contextually. And the choices we make about where we draw this line, in turn, reflect on our own values as athletes and as human beings.

      I am not a Paul Ryan fan, and my first impulse is to say: look, here's another example of a Republican lie!! But I choose to resist that impulse mainly because a) I think there are enough good political reasons not to support Ryan and b) I want to resist the temptation to turn every event into evidence for my own political leanings.

      So maybe this post is about me trying to carve out a bit of sanity in this hyper-politicized consciousness that I have. In order to do that, I need to draw the line between sport and politics pretty clearly in this case, whereas I am willing to blur it--as you eloquently describe--in other cases.

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  6. "I've known many a mild-mannered conscientious dude in ordinary life, who when put into a competitive situation becomes a strange kind of monster, willing to do pretty much anything to WIN. It seems to me that in most cases this sort of character flaw (and it is a flaw, and an odious one) seems to be isolated to the game or sport situation."

    A wise man once said: It's not lies, its just bullsht. I believe the uproar here speaks to the feeling that politics to many has become sport, and as a result politicians become willing to utilize what you call isolated character flaws of sport-including lie and mislead- to win elections. (Yay sports! Where art thou, Olympic spirit?) So then what? We are left with poor governance made up of political hacks planning for the next election (#win). Good thing the vice president doesn't do squat anyway.

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    1. Excellent comment, Mr. Ghost. I think you have hit the proverbial nail on the proverbial head.

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