In the past week, two American heroes passed away: One literally — the other figuratively. Both were household names not only here in the United States but around the world. In the future, both will be remembered but for different reasons.
Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who walked on the moon in 1969, died on Saturday, August 25. This Armstrong became famous for declaring “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” as he set foot on the moon’s surface. Armstrong traveled 238,900 miles to get to the moon. His triumph was one borne of the marriage of man and machine.
Lance Armstrong, the cyclist who won the Tour de France an unprecedented seven consecutive times, gave up his fight on August 24. On that date, this Armstrong became infamous when he declared “enough is enough” as he announced that he would no longer contest the doping charges brought against him by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Armstrong traveled approximately a “mere” 14,000 miles in achieving his Tour victories. His triumph in each of these races was one borne of man over machine.
Lance and Neil Armstrong were driven to excel. They had last names in common and possibly little else. They both, however, shared two sides of the American coin: individualism and team effort.
Neil Armstrong flew 78 combat missions in the Korean War. He had originally wanted to be a test pilot breaking speed records by himself. He ended up being a part of the team of three who landed Apollo II on the moon. Armstrong was the leader of the team but he shared the glory equally with his teammates, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin upon returning to earth to ticker tape parades and considerable adulation. Then, he faded from public view.
Lance Armstrong was known for his indomitable will and legs of steel. What is probably not as well recognized by the layperson is that he competed in a team sport. He needed fellow cyclists to pace him so that he could make the charges to win stages of the Tour in order to claim the title and the fanfare that went with it. At the end, it was these same teammates who threw Lance under the bike by bearing witness against him. As reported in Bloomberg Businessweek on August 25, “10 former Armstrong teammates (who) say he used banned substances such as human growth hormones and steroids.”
Neil Armstrong was a quiet and recalcitrant hero. In John Noble Wilford’s New York Times article on Armstrong the day after his death, historian Douglas Brinkley who interviewed Armstrong for a NASA oral history is quoted stating, “he was our most bashful Galahad.” In a phrase, Neil Armstrong was old school and 20th century.
Lance Armstrong presented a counterpoint to Neil. He was a public figure and a media darling. He relished the spotlight. He was on Facebook and Twitter. His commercial sponsors included Oakley, Nike and Radio Shack. He established the Lance Armstrong Foundation and Livestrong as an organization to support cancer survivors. He was virtually everywhere. Lance Armstrong was new school and 21st century.
What will be their legacies?
Neil Armstrong’s legacy appears assured. The Times article quoted President Obama as saying, “he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten.” And, Charles Bolden, the current NASA administrator, “As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them, remembered for taking humankind’s first small step on a world beyond our own.
Lance Amstrong’s legacy is much more speculative. This cancer survivor captured the heart and imagination of the American public and achieved iconic status as he overcame adversity in both his personal and professional life. Now, the USADA has taken away his victories and banned him from cycling forever. Even though Armstrong has not admitted to anything and never tested positive for doping, his reputation has been tarnished permanently. There will be no asterisks in the record book. It is hard to imagine history treating him kindly.
According to Reuters in a Sunday, August 26 article, in his first public appearance after announcing he would no longer contest the USADA’s doping charges, Lance Armstrong said, “Nobody needs to cry for me.” We may be wrong but we think that the American public is not crying for Lance but possibly for themselves. Our heroes elevate and inspire us. They challenge us to consider the impossible and to do our personal best.
We live in an era when there are too few heroes — in all walks of life. When we lose two in one week – one under less than desirable circumstances, it could be a cause for pessimism and dismay. But not for us, that’s when we turn to another Armstrong — Louie that is — for rejuvenation and renewal of hope.
As Louie sings it,
I hear babies cry… I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more… than I’ll never know
And I think to myself… what a wonderful world.
It’s still a wonderful world. Not quite the same world it was last week but a wonderful one nonetheless — one in which there are new heroes in the waiting and the making. They won’t all be perfect but then again who is?