Two very different characters. Two very different approaches. One a mild mannered, unassuming team player, the other a brash, complex leader. Both elevated to near mythic status by amazing feats of endurance and achievement. This week has seen one of them die surrounded by family and away from the media glare whilst the other committed professional suicide giving up on a long battle to control the world’s perception of his achievements.
Enough has been written about the two Armstrong’s in the news this week that most people know their stories. They were heroes to many and their legacy will be picked over and debated a lot. I’d just like to write a little about what each of them meant to me.
So, Neil Armstrong, first civilian pilot to join NASA, still holder of the manned flight speed record, first man on the moon – a lifetime of firsts. Yet if you asked him (unlikely you’d get the chance as he was such a private man) he would be the first to point to all the others supporting the space programme, to suggest that it was just his turn in the rotation that led to him being mission commander for the moon shot. Those of you who have seen my website or watched my short film will now how fascinated I am by the space programme, (even the company name is a kind of homage to Projects Mercury, Gemini and Apollo). To find that the man lauded as the pinnacle of those achievements is a humble, shy guy is a revelation. No self aggrandising, no merchandising, no attempt to exploit his fame. Just an ordinary guy doing extraordinary things – and no, I don’t mean the moon landing but rather his decision to retire from public life to teach the next generation of undergraduates. I’m glad NASA respected that decision, for me it’s the measure of the man. He saw the bigger picture and felt he could offer more in that role.
Now we turn to Lance Armstrong. The only man to win 7 Tours de France, a cycling colossus and the man who beat debilitating cancer and has raised $500 million. However, unlike his namesake he was an arch manipulator of the media, keen to present his version of events, not content to let others report and analyse. Of course the press and authors have also had a field day with the amazing (too good to be true perhaps?) story of his illness and subsequent return to dominate the sport. Although details remain indistinct no one in the cycling world emerges well from this story. It seems that even the governing body looked the other way at certain irregularities in order to protect its “brand”.
Now whilst Neil Armstrong was an example to me I never saw Lance in that way. I do however have a friend who went through testicular cancer around the same time as Lance. My friend devoured the books, wore the wristband, donated money and after losing one testicle has been cancer free for over 6 years. I saw him on Thursday before the news broke. I pointed to his wristband and asked what he felt as the deadline approached. His look of regret was painful to behold. He admitted that the weight of evidence was always against Armstrong but that his books were still an inspiration. He said he would probably still wear the wristband and we discussed Lance’s legacy. Was all the fund raising and awareness work enough of a counter balance to the cheating?
The debate over Lance Armstrong will run and run until the full evidence is presented. Everyone will have their own opinions. For me, it boils down to one question “Is a flawed hero better than no hero at all?” I’m still wrestling with that one myself. Not all life is as black and white as that moon footage (and lets face it, some conspiracy theorists don’t even accept that).
I’d be interested to hear your views, be they on Neil Armstrong, Lance Armstrong or just the nature of the heroes we hold up to the world. Is it their values or their achievements which mean the most?