On the very July day in 1969 when astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to step on the moon, the 56th Tour de France crowned a new champion. But the birth of American cyclist Lance Armstrong was still two years away.
The younger Armstrong would eventually shoot for the moon, too, by riding his bicycle faster and better than anyone else in the mountains of France. From 1999 to 2005, he won the Tour an unprecedented seven times. That he’d done so after battling testicular cancer that had spread to other organs made it all the more remarkable, if not unbelievable.
But in this tale of two Armstrongs, only one remains an unsullied hero, while the other an enigma. Their paths crossed unexpectedly last week in the kind of heavy-hearted headlines that evoke differing kinds of grief. Neil Armstrong died at age 82; Lance Armstrong fell from the graces of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which stripped him of his Tour de France titles and levied a lifetime ban from competition.
If the cyclist had conducted himself more like the astronaut, things might have been different. Quiet, studious Neil Armstrong was a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot from a small Ohio town. He not only became part of NASA’s fledging Apollo program, but also courageously allowed himself to be catapulted into outer space, though “one giant leap for mankind” was never a sure thing.
After the celebrations that followed the historic flight, Armstrong shunned publicity and remained out of the public eye with one exception: A couple of years ago, he testified before a U.S. Senate committee that it was wrong to slash NASA’s space shuttle program. Upon his death, those who knew him best described him as a man of great humility and integrity. President Obama said he “delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten.”
The ever-competitive, ever confident Lance Armstrong was a product of a tony Dallas suburb. He was a professional triathlete at age 16. By 1996, he was world’s top-ranked cyclist. That was also the year he underwent surgery for cancer. In the aftermath, he started a foundation to support cancer research, and its yellow “Livestrong” wristbands remain massively popular.
Neil Armstrong was nearly 40 years old when he walked on the moon, the age at which Lance Armstrong finds his legacy shredded. He remains a hero to many cancer survivors and cycling fans. But to others, he’s a cheater who disgraced himself his sport and his country.
Unlike the astronaut, the cyclist isn’t shy or humble. He maintains his innocence, pointing to 500 “clean” drug tests taken. He stopped fighting the charges leveled by the USADA on the grounds that the process was tantamount to a kangaroo court. Over the weekend, he competed in a 36-mile mountain bike race and said he was focused on the future. The USADA’s actions didn’t send this Armstrong cowering for cover.
America needs heroes — people of integrity who do extraordinary things in the face of insurmountable obstacles. Lance Armstrong was driven to achieve out of a love for competition and individual glory. Neil Armstrong was a military veteran who put himself in harm’s way for NASA out of a love for his country. Even if you believe the cyclist is being railroaded, it goes without saying which Armstrong is the true hero.