Two Armstrongs

Because of Lance’s decision to stop contesting drug doping allegations this week, just days before Neil’s death, I was convinced that somewhere in today’s papers, there would be at least one headline with something like, “A Tale of Two Armstrongs”

If each man reflected the values of his age, we can only conclude that we are not exactly basking in an age of moral and ethical progress. Lance, who STILL has not admitted that he broke any rules, won 7 Tour de France titles but may be just as well known for beating cancer and starting the “Livestrong” phenomenon. If you’ve ever sported a yellow rubber band, you can thank Lance for your fashion sense.

As a product of his and our times, Lance apparently bent the rules of cycling, a sport which seems to invite bad behavior. (During the Tour, for example, officials are required to check the leaders each day because rule breaking is so pervasive.). A thoroughly modern man, Lance has been media savvy in embracing the cult of celebrity.

Today, though, even his staunchest defenders can only say that Lance’s modus operandi is what it takes if you want to raise half a billion dollars for cancer research. While we all applaud Lance for the courage he showed in facing his illness and in helping others face theirs, none of us can endorse his ends justify the means argument. It just doesn’t stand the test of time, with or without the rubber bands.

By contrast, Neil Armstrong who was 82 when he died, needs no apologists. He was, by all accounts, a good, decent and humble man who went out of his way to downplay what he had accomplished. “I am, and ever will be, a white socks, nerdy engineer.” Still, Armstrong did something so incredibly profound that you can actually raise the question, “A thousand years from now, who will be more widely known, Christopher Columbus or Neil Armstrong?” After doing what no man had ever done, and after sharing the glory with all of his colleagues (Remember: There is no “I” in NASA.) he remained a modest Midwesterner, spending his post space career teaching at the University of Cincinnati.

I was surprised by how moved I was yesterday, when I learned of Neil Armstrong’s passing. It felt like I had lost an uncle. For all that he accomplished, he never tried to cash in on a cable channel, and I don’t recall reading about him in “People” magazine. Neil followed Harry Truman’s example and left the spotlight in order to lead a good and ordinary life.

I do wonder, though, about who will be the Neil Armstrong for the youngsters of today? And will they ever find him on “Real Housewives of New Jersey”?


7 thoughts on “Two Armstrongs

  1. Very apropos. Neil Armstrong is why I like the military. For so many it’s about selfless and uncelebrated sacrifice. But at least Lance put his celebrity to great work and continues to do so. He is still a role model from that perspective. Few have done what he’s done for any cause.

  2. Another great, thought provoking piece, Jim.
    Thanks for sharing it.

    The question that consistently comes to my mind, is how do we model (and teach) this? I think about the ways and extent our institution is living up to our own ideals.

  3. Hi Mr. Chips,
    The sport of bicycle racing never excited me. I found the racing events, with yellow shirts etc..too complicated and I didn’t understand the team concept with only one winner at the end.

    I will say this. Lance Armstrong even on steroids was an amazing athlete. So along with Bonds, Clemons and others he will be tarnished and rich the rest of his life.

    The lesson for your students and our grand kids is to never idolize or worship any one. Admire success and achievement, but remember all humans have weakness.

    I don’t want them to grow up being too cynical of everyone. Playing by the rules and being honest is better. In the long run it is
    also a healthier way to live. cheers

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