Lance Armstrong, seven-time first-place finisher of the Tour de France, essentially went nolo contendere against doping charges. And now we learn that News International is reviewing their out-of-court settlement, made in response to libel charges Lance raised.
Lance was one of those public figures who, the more you looked and the longer the limelight shone upon him, the less “heroic” he seemed. My initial admiration, based on his comeback from cancer and his strong devotion to family, faded as charges of doping persisted and he dealt with marital commitments in a manner that at best can be described as cavalier. His thirst for celebrity—all in the name of his foundation, of course—began to acquire a hint of desperation. Lance needed to be on top, needed to be the best. His retirements came and went as fast as his marriages. Then, last week, when Lance decided to give up the fight against the doping charges, it was the final stroke. Stripped of his titles, he is now just another fallen hero.
In contrast, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, shunned the limelight. This man, a veteran of the Korean War, a test pilot who flew with giants like Yeager and Knight, quietly and expertly did a job that rewrote history. He was a man who could have made a fortune cashing in on his celebrity. As George Carlin famously quipped, if Neil’s first words on the moon had been “Coca-Cola!” he would have been set for life. But instead of fame, he opted for humility and relative obscurity. I have friends who, until they saw pictures of him this past week, couldn’t have picked a picture of Neil out of a lineup. His passing is bittersweet; he lived a remarkable and yet a humble life, he achieved great things but did not boast of them. We no longer live in a world that has Neil Armstrong in it.
We’ve all become accustomed to “heroes” that have feet of clay. We are perfectly comfortable with role models draped with felony convictions. Society turns a blind eye when high-profile celebrities misbehave or commit crimes. We forget easily their bad deeds, and accept the facile apologies crafted so well that they admit no real responsibility.
We do this because real heroes are thin on the ground, these days, and we hunger for someone to look up to. Unfortunately, we’ve lost one of those who was worthy of that admiration.
But only one.