In a world governed by survival of the fittest, competition is hardwired into our DNA. For millennia we have battled not only for resources, but against nature and our own bodies for the prize of greatness. But in the age of reality TV, steroid scandals and extreme endurance races, competition seems a little contrived. As William Faulkner put it, “Victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.” This map asks, What is winning, anyway?
Doping convictions take away more than Olympic medals. They poison the future careers of athletes hell-bent on winning, as well as the memory of their past glory. Take former track-and-field star Marion Jones, whose myriad athletic achievements could not compete with the title she earned in 2007: “cheater and liar.” In a tearful press conference, Jones confessed to doping and lying to a grand jury during the investigation of BALCO, the designer steroid ring that supplied Olympians and other high-profile sports stars. Shamed, Jones was stripped of her medals, titles and self-respect.
Crackdowns by the World Anti-Doping Agency penalize Olympic juicers by the dozen for cheating their way through qualifying trials and into our hearts. But despite batteries of tests, steroids continue to show up. Performance-enhancing drugs may have tainted the Games since their inception. From “magic” potions in ancient Greece to marathoner Thomas Hicks’s strychnine in 1904, PEDs have given many athletes their edge. PEDs were first banned from the Olympics after an amphetamine-induced death at the 1960 Summer Games in Rome. In 1967 the International Olympic Committee characterized steroids as an attack on the integrity of sports and a danger to the health of athletes.
Ashrita Furman, Guinness record holder for most world records (424 set since 1979), doesn’t consider himself a natural athlete. Instead of hitting the gym, he’s more likely managing his health-food store in Queens, New York. But thanks to his spiritual mentor, eccentric philosopher-cum-weightlifter Sri Chinmoy, Furman’s inner strength has found a natural physical outlet in setting records in “sports” that are beyond most people’s imagination: upside-down juggling, Hula-Hoop racing, pool cue balancing and catching grapes in his mouth, to name a few. Furman’s records require the spirit if not the physique of an Olympian and run the gamut from tongue-in-cheek stunts to superhuman feats. Yet we’re not likely to see him in the next Olympics because Furman isn’t going for the gold, he’s going for enlightenment.
Furman isn’t the only winner mentored by Chinmoy, whose accomplishments include founding the Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race (around a single block in New York City) and bench-pressing Nelson Mandela. Among Olympians, nine-time gold medalist Carl Lewis and long jumper Tatyana Lebedeva both received “inner coaching” from Chinmoy, and they say he advanced their athletic careers. Winning, Chinmoy advised, is the highest spiritual pursuit, bringing “supreme glory to earth.”
Guinness World Records champion Ashrita Furman joyfully devotes his life to absurd sporting records: walking backward (in 440-pound iron shoes), pogo-sticking (up 1,899 steps), unicycling backward (for 53 miles). But breaking records is not an end in itself. The physical challenge, Furman claims, takes him out of his body and brings him closer to enlightenment. His love affair with self-transcendence began during a 24-hour cycling race in 1978, during which he meditated his way to the bronze.
What is it about the bicycle and enlightenment? Considered the world’s most brutal endurance test, ultracycling’s Race Across America is a lab experiment for the human breaking point: Over a maximum of nine consecutive days, amateur cyclists ride about 3,000 miles across the U.S., logging a daily average of 250 to 350 miles; the leaders get by on about 90 minutes of sleep a night. Many riders don’t make it through the pain, heat exhaustion and sleep deprivation to arrive at the finish line. Yet the same cyclists return year after year, bodies ravaged, to prove the assertions of German surgeon August Bier—that “powerful mental stimuli and the simultaneous elimination of inhibitions” can be a major factor in defying muscular limitations.
Disgraced American cycling champion Lance Armstrong has said that “endurance athletes are running away from something,” using adrenaline to soothe the aches of inadequacy. After retiring as a seven-time Tour de France champion and Olympic bronze medalist, Armstrong declined to fight USADA doping charges and was summarily stripped of his titles. But perhaps Armstrong’s racing days aren’t over. Will he be allowed to compete, as he has claimed he wants to, in the Race Across America (RAAM), which is 800 miles longer than the Tour and biked in less than half the time?
Extreme sports can become an addiction with dangers like those posed by steroids, minus the social stigma. Jure Robič, the methodically crazy RAAM champion, doesn’t juice. He uses something even more potent: mind control. In physiological terms, according to the “central governor” theory, winning truly is mind over matter—specifically, the brain can be tricked into supplying extra energy reserves to the muscles in the final hour of exertion. The sleep-deprived Robič, for example, uses his hallucinations as ammunition against exhaustion. All the stress on the brain, however, has its price; many riders enter psychotic states and some even perish in fatal crashes during RAAM.
The narcissistic qualities of so-called hypercompetition often lie dormant, waiting to explode into full-fledged mania. A quick test: Do you (a) believe winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing, (b) need to win in order to validate your self-worth or (c) become hostile when you lose? If you answered yes to any of these, you may be America’s Next Top Model—or a closet roid rager.
The aggressive, testosterone-induced state known as roid rage—a common side effect of regular anabolic steroid use—has been the downfall of gym rats and professionals on the field. Cutthroat competition is stock-in-trade for athletes, but when they take steroids that trigger sex-drive impulses in the brain, winning becomes hormonally linked with masculinity, power and biological instinct. With so much at stake, losing is no longer an option.
As a manic neurosis, hypercompetition also manifests as emotional aggression. The hostility of roid ragers parallels the posture of competitive reality TV stars who aren’t “here to make friends” but are here to win, despite what they have to lose in the process, whether that is friends, dignity or respect. Winning and losing, it turns out, can look a lot alike.
In 2012, 4.8 billion people—68 percent of the world’s population—watched the London Olympic Games. We tune in to see top athletes experience what ABC’s Wide World of Sports called the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” and in the process we elevate the winners to a status approaching sainthood.
Reality TV also capitalizes on competition, minus the regulated events and high level of training. Producers manipulate scenarios and stereotypes to capture contestants’ narcissistic desire to win at all costs. From The Amazing Race to American Idol, the drama boils down to what has become the unglamorous catchphrase of reality television: “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win.”
The two arenas will merge as gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps dives headfirst into the world of reality TV. As the scheduled subject of The Haney Project, Phelps aims to conquer the golf course with guidance from Hank Haney, former swing coach of Tiger Woods. Golf Channel president Mike McCarley has a more ratings-centered angle in mind: “We look forward to chronicling Michael’s transition from the most decorated Olympian in history to a frustrated golfer.” Phelps may make friends, but most likely he won’t win.
A star who loses self-control in the name of winning is, well, a winning formula for high TV ratings. Though critics disagree on why viewers are attracted to sadistic, petty humiliation, the reality TV show model is nothing if not lucrative. Though the “reality” is decidedly staged, relying on stereotypical casting, manipulative editing and drunken, late-night interviews, fans identify with, or get off on, watching crazy fameballs bare their souls.
Like the reality show catchphrase “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win,” Charlie Sheen’s infamous retort “I’m not bipolar, I’m bi-winning” became a cultural meme. Repeated with tongue-in-cheek flair, both slogans capture the narcissism that makes manufactured winning so much fun to watch. It’s despicable and pathetic, but wait—don’t change the channel! With all eyes on Sheen, the networks couldn’t let the spectacle fizzle without getting a piece. A record-breaking 5.5 million viewers tuned in to the premiere of his quasi-autobiographical sitcom Anger Management, whose edgy plotlines and profane dialogue play on his much-publicized antics. Judging by Sheen’s “reality,” his shock value may just carry Anger Management to syndication.
For self-aggrandizing actor Charlie Sheen, winning is the only reality. “I don’t believe in failure, fatigue or excuses,” Sheen proclaims. “Boom, crush. ’Night, losers. Winning, duh.” In March 2011, after a public, drug-induced tirade against his employers at Warner Bros., Sheen’s bombastic rhetoric and disconnect with reality spiraled out of control. He was promptly fired and in the aftermath appeared manic in TV interviews and on the internet. But despite, or perhaps because of, his delusions of grandeur and scandalous behavior, Sheen is by certain standards a success. He became the “Fastest to Reach 1 Million Twitter Followers” (a Guinness World Record), as well as the fastest to sell out on Ticketmaster (on his national speaking tour, “My Violent Torpedo of Truth / Defeat Is Not an Option”). Now that’s called winning (duh).
Failure was likewise not an option for General Electric’s moneymaker “Manager of the Century,” Jack Welch. Prior to Sheen’s co-opting the term, Welch was the “winning” king, passing down his legendary strategies for building leadership, candor and shareholder dividends in his best-seller Winning. As Welch writes, “Winning lifts everyone it touches—it just makes the world a better place.”