The Triumph and Tragedy of the Armstrongs

One slipped the surly bonds of space to reach another world and plant the American flag on its dusty moonscape. Another won seven Tour de France races, an Olympic medal, and bragging rights more than slightly diminished by rampant steroid use. Both were named Armstrong, a mythical-sounding appellation derived from being “strong-armed.” Perhaps not quite mythical, then, but certainly utilitarian: both Lance and Neil, occupying bygone first names alluding to a different time, were emblems of the tragedy and triumph of the human spirit.

“The riskiest thing you can do is get greedy,” one of the these Armstrongs once said. The other was said to be a man of few words, most famously known for his 11 words upon stepping off the lunar module: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” (The extra “a” was put in there by myself, since Neil was alleged to have flubbed the line NASA gave him, but then again, neither you nor I have ever landed on the Moon.) Lance Armstrong spawned a culture of the “Live Strong” attitude, a defiance against adversity — and ultimately the anticlimax to the moonshot, with his decision to plead no contest to doping charges with the USADA and their reaction, the destruction of his legacy.

People may still “believe” in the tragic Lance as much as they believe in our space program: both appear weak and vulnerable, yet the promise within each to make a nation dream again may yet still appear. Armstrong is a risk-taker, a frontiersman who wants to win and go big. Nothing was badder than landing on the Moon; we were in a death race with the Soviets to do it, and that charismatic womanizer from New England said we were going there by the time “this decade is out.” Out-racing other bicyclists like spermatoza on the fallopian tubes of French streets seven times in a row with the aid of performance-enhancing drugs will always pale in comparison. But it was still cool, too. Except the part where he cheated.

Ironically, more than three decades of lunatic conspiracists have tried to deny Neil’s achievement as well, though on far less evidentiary basis. Buzz, the enforcer, was known to deck anyone in the face who would dare try saying America didn’t do it. Lance did it, too, but the chemicals helped — in a similar fashion, Neil could not have told Houston that the Eagle had landed were it not for the Saturn V rocket that raced through the void like the powerful steroids racing through Lance as he propelled to yet another Victory.

When the dust settles, the footprints remain. We came in peace. We raced to win. The name Armstrong shall live in eternity as the great, flawed enterprise known as Spectacle: hundreds of millions the world over were inspired, only to lose interest (the moon landing project ended in 1972) or to grow disgusted and be let down (the doping scandal broke years ago, only to face its denouement in the last few days). In either case, millions were transfixed, for good or not, for permanence or transience, to the stars or to stardom.

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