The other day, retired cyclist Lance Armstrong gave up his fight against doping accusations. The other day, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong died.
Both were inevitable, but in the way you don’t want to think about and for entirely different reasons.
Lance Armstrong had such a good story, coming from near-death with testicular cancer to winning seven physically grueling events at the apex of his sport.
Because of that, we overlooked everything: how he was always a bit of a jerk; how he divorced the wife who’d stuck with him through his lowest moments then got with a rock star; and most of all we overlooked the realization that in a sport where everyone before and after him was doping, and where most of his serious rivals were caught doping, Lance Armstrong was likely doing something similar himself, or else had to be an ungodly physical specimen, winning against performance-enhanced competitors with just his own talent.
The word hero gets used an awful lot, usually poorly. And that’s partially because these days we want our heroes to be flawless, and real people never are that. The Greeks knew this, and gave their heroes flaws, flaws to match their unnatural gifts. But we don’t blame Achilles for getting dipped in fire or sitting out most of the Trojan War. It’s part of what makes the character compelling.
Lance Armstrong is still an incredible athlete, his story is still inspiring, and his arrogance doesn’t undo the millions of dollars he’s sent toward cancer research with his LIVESTRONG wristbands campaign.
Anyway, it’s cycling, so who cares?
Compared to the Greek heroes of legend, Neil Armstrong by all accounts had far fewer character flaws. Despite no divine ancestry, he accomplished a greater feat than could have been imagined by the human race in its younger days.
With 1960s technology and science we managed to get three men to orbit the moon, two men on the rock itself and then get them back into orbit and all three of them home safely. The ’60s!
Moreover, he’s been a hero in every way we want our American heroes to be: humble, honest, moral. A man of integrity made the small step, and mankind leapt.
Even the first man to stir up dust on the moon had to return to dust himself. And it doesn’t seem right.
It seems like he ought to have earned him a place on Olympus, but no one does. If you manage to get your place in the history books, history goes on and your place in it shrinks, and you hope there’s something left for you in a hundred or 500 years.
On his death, Neil Armstrong is already on the short list of people whose legacy can only be expected to grow, regardless of who’s writing the books.
It would be nice if we were the ones to be doing it. And it would be better if we were writing them on holodisc on Mars. Or Europa. But who knows how these things turn out?
Lance Armstrong still inspires me as a human being, that no matter how bad it gets, you can keep fighting to turn it around and conquer everything – by any means necessary. But I hope Neil Armstrong continues to inspire the human race, and that I’m still around to witness the fruits of it.