Stage 10 of the 2001 Tour de France was a climb in the French Alps involving three above category hill climbs, summiting at the legendary ski resort l’Alpe d’Huez. It is the first mountain stage of the world-renowned bicycle race. Early in the day, Jan Ullrich had eased into the lead of the peloton (a cluster of cyclists), and was favoured to win the ascent. Lance Armstrong, the two-time Tour champion, appeared to be struggling behind the leaders, and race radios buzzed and hissed with speculation that the American had gassed out. However, nearing the slopes of the l’Alpe d’Huez, Armstrong climbed to the head of the peloton and level with Ullrich. They battled neck-and-neck until the head of the last hill climb, where Armstrong famously stood, attacked, and pulled out in front of the German, looking back as he passed, burning holes into Ullrich’s eyes, daring his defeated opponent to attack. Ullrich refused, and Armstrong finished the mountain stage with over a minute in hand. “The Look” quickly gained notoriety in sports circles. One American sports journalist considered it the moment that cycling graduated from a fringe sport to major league in America. The episode single-handedly showcased Armstrong’s competitive nature and never-quit persona that has enraptured millions. However, in the past three weeks his image has taken a serious beating.
On August 23, Armstrong declined to continue to fight charges of using banned performance-enhancing substances brought against him by the US Anti-Doping Agency. His refusal to defend himself against evidence and witnesses has led the US agency to recommend that he be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and Olympic bronze medal. Armstrong is likely to fight the charges through international channels, hoping that the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) will overturn the USADA’s decision. The news has polarised Armstrong’s fans and the media. Some reports have chastised the athlete as a fraud, while others have cast doubt upon the validity of the USADA’s charges, stating that he is the victim of a “witch hunt”. But to Armstrong’s millions of die-hard fans, he is more than just an athlete: he is an idol. His public persona symbolises triumph over adversity; he epitomises the everyday-man-turned-hero. The US$500 million that the Lance Armstrong Foundation (LiveStrong) has raised over the last decade and a half has put a dollar value on his persona’s social worth. Before he threw in the towel, Armstrong seemed invincible, embraced by a media culture infatuated with celebrity heroes.
Hero worship, in its various guises, is ingrained into our culture. Biographies of an athlete’s struggle to succeed, a social-outcast-turned-pop-star on American Idol, or an aspiring politician beating the odds to become a leader are narratives designed to strike an inspirational emotional chord. It all dates back to Ancient Greece, where heroes like Achilles were worshipped for their peculiar strength and extraordinary feats.
When Thetis dipped her son Achilles in the river Styx, any place the sacred water touched his body became invulnerable, except for his heel, which remained dry. As a young man, he went to Troy to fight, and proved himself to be an undefeatable warrior. To avenge the death of his friend Patroclus, Achilles killed the mighty Trojan Hector, and desecrated the prince’s remains by dragging his body behind a chariot while Hector’s father, Priam, and brother, Paris, watched. Ultimately however, his excesses did not go unpunished by the gods.
The Tour de France is a war of its own, a multi-stage epic encompassing 3,200 kilometres in 21 days. The journey through France is exhausting. To win it once is a dream accomplishment; to win it seven consecutive times is an immortal feat. By the mid-2000s, Lance Armstrong was untouchable. In the eyes of the public the only thing that could possibly rival his Tour domination was his triumph over a 1996 diagnosis of testicular cancer. LiveStrong became more than just another athletic slogan. The yellow wristband was emblematic of the virtuous side of competition, intertwining an athlete’s individual test of strength with the normal individual’s perseverance through difficult times — it was brilliant marketing. Armstrong quotes became ubiquitous. “Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever.” “Whatever your 100% looks like, give it.” “We have two options, medically and emotionally: give up, or Fight Like Hell.” Arguably, his message was that every struggle in life can be reduced to a metaphorical competition: winning is fighting, so fight or die trying. It was the ultimate go-getter war call. However, in life, as in sport, competitiveness has its rational limits, and when tipped to the extreme, the winning-at-all-costs mentality can quickly become a slippery slope to taking any advantage available, no matter the cost. Yet both people and even nations are often rewarded — especially financially — for “doing whatever it takes” to get the job done. The benefits of winning a war aren’t bragging rights, but claims to ideological, economic, and military superiority over others. It’s about looking and appearing invincible.
30 years separate Lance Armstrong’s first Tour de France victory from the Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969. At the time hope sparked by the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, had been dashed by a string of assassinations, the Vietnam War, and the civil unrest the unpopular war provoked. Amidst the chaos the broadcast of the moon landing signalled a pivotal moment: a divided nation stood together and watched humans move forward. However, the US push to beat the Soviet Union to the moon was not orchestrated solely for the good of mankind. The moon landing was the equivalent of the USA giving the USSR “The Look” while rocketing past the communist superpower into the lead of a political race for superiority. The Apollo space program was born from this acute need to win at any cost — an attitude still very much present in the US and most nations throughout the world today.
In January 1967, while most of the Apollo astronauts were in Washington DC rubbing shoulders with dignitaries, a ground test went terribly wrong, and a fire aboard Apollo 1 killed three US astronauts. The deaths could have been avoided if proper time and care were taken to ensure the astronauts’ safety. The US and NASA were guilty of forsaking the safety of their astronauts to maintain the breakneck speed they deemed necessary to stay ahead in the space race. Lance Armstrong’s own desperate need to finish first was perhaps driven by that same blinding desire.
Neil Armstrong received his first flight certificate at age 15, before his driver’s licence. He studied aerospace engineering at Perdue University before being called up to the US Navy to fight in the Korean War, flying 78 missions. He returned to Perdue to finish his degree, and then joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics High-speed Flight Station as a research pilot. He was praised for his aeronautical engineering skills, and was described as “the most technically capable of the early X-15 pilots”. He joined the NASA Astronaut Corps without hesitation, later telling his biographer: “I was disappointed by the wrinkle in history that had brought me along one generation late. I had missed all the great times and adventures in flight.” NASA introduced a new kind
This is where Neil Armstrong’s personality diverges from Lance Armstrong’s and the Apollo program. Though Neil was a competitive man affiliated with the space race, his desire for success appeared not to rank above his own ethical and moral responsibilities.
The mild-mannered astronaut was offered the post of commander of Apollo 11 because of what the NASA administrator deemed his “grace and humility”. He was asked to be the leader of the highly technical and dangerous mission precisely because he exhibited personality traits that best facilitated a team of highly trained individuals to work together and flourish independently. His soft-spoken cool-headedness in the face of danger made him the obvious choice. When Apollo 11 was picked to attempt the moon landing, Armstrong was positioned to be the first man to walk on the moon. His fellow team member Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin lobbied vociferously to replace Armstrong at the top of the walk order. According to Armstrong’s longtime friend, Dudley Schuler, Buzz’s actions embarrassed Armstrong, who saw the mission purely as a job, not a chance for fame. After the moon landing Armstrong never returned to space. He resigned from NASA and became a Professor of Aeronautical Engineering at Perdue.
Schuler, interviewed by the Telegraph in 2009, maintained that in the years after the moon landing, Armstrong’s shy personality defined his public persona, and that he was quick to disappear from public places if recognised. Armstrong himself said that he had no wish to play the part of a “human memorial”. As the years progressed, his paranoia of publicity grew. He refused to sign autographs, cards, or even yearbooks at his high school reunion. Former US Under-Secretary of Commerce Jim Rogan said recently that after lodging a bill to recognise the men of Apollo 11 with the US Congressional Gold Medal, Armstrong contacted him and asked for the bill’s withdrawal. When Rogan refused, Armstrong said: “We’re just three guys who stood on the shoulders of so many people who came before us.” Inexplicable as it may seem, Neil Armstrong rejected fame and hero worship.
Susan Cain, author of the New York Times bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, argues convincingly that it’s time to stop undervaluing the traits of introspection and solitude — common characteristics of introverts — and recognise that these traits are integral to effective leadership and social harmony. Throughout his lifetime, Neil Armstrong demonstrated many of the same attributes Cain mentions in her book. So why is Lance Armstrong’s character deemed an integral part of his athleticism, yet Neil Armstrong’s character has gone the last four decades largely overshadowed by his dusty lunar footprints?
The question is partly rhetorical, but there are beginnings of a possible answer. Cain argued in her popular TED talk that western societies, particularly America, have shifted from a culture of character to a culture of personality. The person of action out-competes the person of contemplation. Individuals once valued for their moral rectitude today appear increasingly antisocial and strange. On the contrary, Lance Armstrong’s public persona is that of the perfect extrovert, and so he has been celebrated unchecked because his image is compatible with a social narrative that praises success based on competitive prowess. Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal has turned his public image into a contradiction: his flawed character is at odds with his perfect personality. Much to the chagrin of those wanting an archetype, the cancer survivor/seven-time champion/inspirational icon turned out to be human after all.
While Neil rode upon the shoulders of Apollo to claim victory for his country, he ultimately refused to taint his character with either fame or the win-at-all-costs mentality that characterised the space race. Lance, like Achilles before him, is killed by Apollo’s aim; by an arrow piercing where he thought himself strongest, his own competiveness. Winning at all costs may have its place in the fight for survival, but there is a tipping point where this attitude overrides morals and ethics. The cult of personality that defines our current culture demands that races are won, records are broken, and that the famous transcend the limits of what we thought was humanly possible for the sake of entertainment. But there are physical limits to how fast a race can be won, just as there are limits to human ability that we will eventually have to face.
Life is not a race to the end, but a strange journey that begs for a metaphor to describe it. And if that is the case, let it hinge upon a scale weighted with the better aspects of our character than our own delusions of grandeur.