Justin Gatlin. Barry Bonds. Floyd Landis. Steroids. Cheating. What’s the deal? Why are so many big name athletes-top tier athletes-either testing positive for steroids or coming under scrutiny? It can’t be in the pursuit of money since even a guy who rides a bicycle for a living makes more money per year than most of the rest of us. So why do they do it? Why abuse their bodies and put their careers in jeopardy in pursuit of…just what are they in pursuit of? As you might expect, I’ve got an opinion.

America thrives on competition. We turn everything into a competition and are conditioned to do so from a very young age. I mean, for crying out, we have actually managed to turn the ability to spell words correctly into a nationally broadcast competition. Sports is televised twenty-hour hours a day. At the end of every school year the valedictorian is announced and in case you didn’t hear, there have actually been cases where violent measures have been taken by one valedictorian candidate against another.

Competition. It’s the true national pastime in America. We have to be number one. You may find this hard to believe, but there used to be a time when not everyone knew what the number one movie at the box office was each week. Now we not only know what was number one, but we know how much that movie made; we even know the average per screen. And if a movie makes 50 million dollars in its opening weekend we know it was really a flop because it had been estimated to make 58 million.

We now know the Nielsen ratings each week. Those of us over a certain age can remember a time when the Nielsen ratings were as closely guarded a secret as what’s really happening in Area 51. We knew the ratings existed, we may even have been chosen to be Nielsen family once, but our only knowledge of which show was ranked where occurred when a show got cancelled in the middle the season. Now we know which show was ranked number 1. And we also know that if a show happens to be watched by only a measly 10 million people a week it will soon be cancelled. Imagine that: If 10 million people went to see a movie in one week it would be breaking box office records and would be held up as a blockbuster. But if those same 10 million are the only people watching a TV show, it’s a flop.

Competition. It’s everywhere. Politicians say we have to do something about education in America or else our students won’t be competitive in the global marketplace. So the purpose of education in America becomes just another race with the goal being to wind up on top in those rankings of grades by country rather than to produce adults with a well-rounded education. Education has become nothing more than another World Cup and because American students aren’t scoring any nearer the top in this one than they are in the soccer World Cup, we’re revamping the whole system by instituting standardized testing to prove that, hey, we’re number one! Number one in taking tests, anyway.

Competition in America has led to violent riots in the streets of major American cities by fans of the team that won! Competition has led to the parents of little league athletes shooting umpires who, in the opinion of the shooter, made the wrong call. Competition leads to massive cheating in the scholastic system. Competition leads to women undergoing plastic surgery after plastic surgery. Competition leads to Hollywood caring more about being number one at the box office than making good movies because, after all, nobody remembers number two.

That’s the cliché, right? Nobody ever remembers number two? Well, I’ve got a quiz for you. I want you to keep in mind that Super Bowl Sunday has become at least as official a holiday as, say, Memorial Day or Martin Luther King’s Birthday. Millions gather around the television set where the network trumpets the fact that they broke last year’s record for the price of an ad during the game. More pizzas are delivered or picked up on Super Bowl Sunday than any other single day of the year. More potato chips will be eaten and more beer consumed. (Contrary to rumor, however, spousal abuse will not spike up any more than usual.) In other words, Super Bowl Sunday is the…well…Super Bowl of competition in America. It really means something because this is the game that will decide the best football team in America, and number two will fade into memory just like all the other teams in the NFL who didn’t even make to Super Bowl Sunday. Nobody remembers number two, but we all remember number one. Okay then, here’s your quiz and no fair cheating:

Name the teams that WON the Super Bowl in the following years:

Competition is everything, right? And nobody remembers number two, but we all remember number one. How many of you are confident you got all those Super Bowl winners right? Half? One or two? Any? I don’t understand, the Super Bowl is the biggest day of the year for competition and most of you can’t remember more than one or two of these Super Bowl winners? How can that be? Because competition isn’t that important. Being number one isn’t that important and we don’t remember winners any more than we remember who finished number two. Unless it’s “our team.”

All of which brings me back to Justin Gatlin, Barry Bonds, and Floyd Landis. Here’s the weird thing about these three. And remember that as of now all three are only alleged to have used steroids. I’m not accusing, I’m just using them as examples and for a very good reason. All three are at the top of their respective sports. And all three are quite obviously naturally gifted athletes. I mean even without steroids, there would only be a handful of people in the entire world who would be competitive with them. So here’s the question.

Why is it not enough for Justin Gatlin, Barry Bonds and Floyd Landis to be in the top 1% of their sports? Justin Gatlin is already faster than not only everybody else in the world save Asafa Powell, he’s faster than anybody else in history of the world save Asafa Powell. Barry Bonds probably wasn’t going to come anywhere near Hank Aaron’s home run record, but he was almost guaranteed to finish somewhere in the top ten or fifteen on the all time home run list. Floyd Landis was already good enough to win the Tour De France. Every one of these guys and hundreds of others are better at what they do than 99% of the rest of the world.

Why isn’t that good enough? Why do they have to be better than 99.99% of the rest of the world. What’s the deal?

Because America drives home in every way the idea that if you aren’t absolutely, positively the best there is-the best there can possibly be-then you really aren’t any better than the guy who finishes in last place. What do we call the loser of the Super Bowl? What do we call the loser of the World Series? Hint: I just used the word twice. The team that loses the championship game is declared the loser, despite the fact that only one team was better then they. It’s almost better to finish in last place than to get to the World Series or the Super Bowl and lose. Somehow finishing second has become worse than finishing eleventh or twenty-seventh.

Competition has made a false god of being number one. Those who win the championship are placed on this high pedestal-temporarily-and those who lose are deemed bigger losers than the team that was out of competition by the middle of the season. If it’s true that Justin Gatlin used some kind of steroid enhancement, the question that must be raised is why? Why was being tied for the title of Fastest Man in the World worth so little that he was willing to risk his career? What could he possibly have hoped to gain? Breaking the tie and become the sole owner of the title Fastest Man in the World? Okay, great. I have another quiz for you.

Who owned the title Fastest Man in the World in the following years:

Don’t feel bad if you can’t name even one. The sad fact is nobody outside of the track and field community really cares. Competition is just not all it’s cracked up to be. In the end it’s meaningless. Whoever wins this championship or that championship will get to bask in it for awhile, but chances are most of you don’t even remember who this year’s Super Bowl much less who won the 1985 World Series.

Competition is displayed at its most meaningless in the sports world, but its effects are felt in every facet of American life. Everyone is struggling so hard to finish first that they are forgetting one very important fact of life: Being first is not synonymous with being best.