Dirty Words: The Miserable Champion(s)

Miserable Heroes vs. The World

By Sal Ruibal

In 1998, I wrote a front-page cover story for USA TODAY that posed the question: “Is this man the world’s greatest athlete?” That man was mountain bike-snowboard-motocross-punk rocker Shaun Palmer, and that story shocked the sports world.

The traditional sports establishment wet their seersucker trousers in anger: USA Track and Field cried that only the current world-record holder in the decathlon could wear that crown. Major League sports fans cried in their Lite Beer because Bo Jackson was a pro football-baseball star. The Earth moved.

Fast-forward to 2012 and the idea that an action sports athlete could be the best in the world isn’t shocking, it seems normal. Shaun White lights it up at Winter and Summer X Games while snatching a bunch of Olympic gold medals. He’s looking beyond little wheels and half-pipes these days.

Travis Pastrana? If it has wheels and he has bones, give him something to break. One of the scariest rides I’ve ever been on was in a U-Haul truck with Travis at the wheel.

But neither of those guys were true punk rockers in the heyday of that genre. If the only thing The Palm ever did was scream and shout with Fungus, he would still have a spot in the Crazy MoFo Hall of Fame.

Finally, after many years of frustration and cinematic near death, the Shaun Palmer movie is out there for your viewing pleasure. Brad Holmes’ film, Shaun Palmer: The Miserable Champion, is a horror show and a Saturday morning Superman cartoon blended with a Sex Pistols live show and a donkey demolition derby. The flick won Best Biography at the 2012 X-Dance Action Sports Film Festival.

Palmer should have been in the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics. He was the favorite to win gold in the first-ever men’s Boardercross event. And if he hadn’t gone for just one more training run before heading over to Italy, if he hadn’t torn his Achilles tendon on that run, I’m absolutely certain he would have shocked the world once again.

World Cup Downhill MTB Champ Aaron Gwin is the mirror image of Palmer. He’s straight-edge and focused where Palmer is always one hair from out-of-control. Gwin leads a healthy lifestyle. They both just win. Wouldn’t you love to see them race head-to-head?

Last time I saw Palmer he was settling down after almost dying from an overdose of his own bullshit, depressed after losing a motocross contract. Over the years he’s sold a shipload of Palmer snowboards and video games, so he’s not starving or lacking for big-finned Cadillacs.

He will turn 44 in November. He’s sober and building a house on a serene lake.

I rode road bikes with him around Lake Tahoe. Palmer on a road bike is like a monkey with hemorrhoids riding a mongoose. It ain’t pretty.

I believe that Palmer could make a comeback in DH. He lost the 1996 DH world championship to Nicolas Vouilloz by less than the width of a pinky finger. But if winning meant losing his sobriety and his peace of mind, I’d put a stick in his spokes.

Is this man the world’s greatest athlete? Hell, yeah.

POSTSCRIPT: After I finished writing the Shaun Palmer blog, news of Lance Armstrong’s surrender was announced. In my 20-plus years as a USA TODAY sportswriter, The Palm and Lance were the two most important and most interesting people I wrote about. I spent a lot of time with both of them. They are very much alike: their total focus on winning and an addiction to the domination of their perceived rivals. They both had absentee fathers and strong-willed mothers.

If I had to choose which one of their lives I could lead, I would pick Palmer’s. He was drunk and drug-addled for many years, but he also had great joy in his life and truly found his creative expression in his sports. He “sang” in a punk band and rode pro motocross. He was “Mini-Shred” as a kid and never lost that playfulness, even when hard luck blocked him from his Olympic dreams. Palmer is an eternal optimist and is always looking at the sunny side unless he’s lying face down in his own puke. I think he’s going to make it.

Lance is also a one-off, but with a huge chip on his shoulder. But while Palmer nearly ended his life with party drugs, Lance, by his own sad surrender, has now ruined his life and his legacy. His inability to take full responsibility for his role in doping is wrong, but also understandable. One doesn’t dominate one of the hardest sports in the world for so long with a normal ego. Or with normal blood values.

The systematic doping operation outlined by Travis Tygart and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is the result of Lance’s own teammates coming forward to say what they saw and what they did. Lance is angry about that, but did he expect honor among cheaters? His passive-aggressive surrender without admitting guilt just keeps the wound open and festering. It won’t be long before the maggots start gnawing away at his legacy.

Palmer may fall off the wagon again, but he’s got a group of friends who will hopefully wipe off the vomit and tuck him into bed. He’ll keep trying until he gets it right.

Lance Armstrong is a human being, and I also got to see that side of him. On several occasions, just before my youngest daughter had to undergo painful orthopedic surgeries, Lance would call her and give her a little pep talk. I also remember him meeting with the families of cancer victims while at the Tour, their loved ones bundled in the back seat of a car in a little village in France. It was difficult for him then and probably still is. They expect miracles from a god who knows his own weaknesses all too well.

I wrote about that in a USA TODAY cover story that was titled, “The Reluctant Saint.” Palmer’s movie is “The Miserable Hero.”

Do we expect too much from our heroes? Maybe, but that’s why we have heroes. And that’s why it hurts when they let us down. I hope that Lance is able to find a new path with the help of his family and friends. Truth and reconciliation, in that order. For yourself, not us.

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  • Old Bat

    I have been a Lance agnostic for a decade, and have strongly mixed sentiments about his (what,exactly, was this?not an apology, not an admission).
    Saddest case: Tyler Hamilton, who deserves at least belated respect for coming clean, like David Millar, Bjarne Riis, etc.
    Most hypocritical status: Alberto Contador, hon. mention to Floyd Landis, for different reasons. Probably 60-90% of the other riders in that decade were taking something banned; the smarter teams just knew better tricks to beat the cup. Recent comment said that tests in that era weren’t drug tests, so much as I.Q. tests. Johann Bruhneel was Einstein, apparently.

    Ultimately, though, I believe the anti-doping business is in their own way just as arrogant and ego-driven as the athletes themselves. And the greatest mistake they ever made was creating a blindman’s bluff scenario that was and always will be unwinnable.
    That is saying in effect, “Some day we (might) catch you, retroactively, with a test we cannot promise will ever be actually developed. ”
    This modest proposal has created a decade or more of confusion, indecision, high-stakes gambling bets with belated recalls pending. As a racer, your choices then became – race clean, probably in obscure mediocrity, retire young and full or resentment, or gamble that however you decide to “fudge,” you can hope to not get caught, have a much stronger chance at a career, then quit while you’re ahead, don’t look back, and wake up in cold sweats every few months for the rest of your life.
    The agencys never have had any legitimate right to do more than immediate testing and penalizing, in my opinion. Had they been realistic, saying ok here’s what we can detect today, if you take this we’ll bust you; we hope you don’t take other stuff too, because if you need it to win, by next year we’ll have a test for that and bust you anyway. Cheers.
    This clarity is essential, because for the most part, crimes connected with the use of performance enhancing substances are minor, outside of competition; further, sports exist within sets of rules which are inherently arbitrary, and often changing; corking bats, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

    Vague, veiled threats put riders and struggling teams in impossible positions, because face it without the wins, sponsors never cared if you were clean or not.
    Now, gee, let’s go dig up Raymond Poulidor and make sure his corpse isn’t tainted.

    The only good is Armstong has spared many ardent, earnest, decent blokes who may either have been reluctant witnesses, several by hint of their own sins, from having to testify in a very ugly, vicious public execution, not just of Lance, but of the sport of cycling.
    As a final ironic reminder, circa 1984, I recall that the U.S. Olympic cycling team, and perhaps others, were encouraging athletes to use the briefly legal new technique of homologous blood transfusions, i.e. blood doping. I bet few other nations had the medical support to safely utilize this tactic, but we did, so what, pray tell, is the difference?
    - It wasn’t banned, then, only later; that is the entire difference. And the Devil is in the details.

  • tim

    While I am in awe of Shaun Palmer’s accomplishments, he falls into the same category as other famous druggies and drinkers like John Belushi and Keith Moon. No person who is at peace with himself, humble with their talents and success, and living on adrenaline alone should be put into any category that may make young impressionables want to copy.

    • Shawn

      Athletes and other sports ‘heroes’ do not ask to be thrust into the spotlight. Some of them just want to do their thing. Until we stop cutting teacher’s salaries and paying baseball ‘stars’ million dollar contracts, blame the media.

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