At the end of August, two men named Armstrong were both in the news. Neil Armstrong was mentioned because he died at the age of 82. Lance Armstrong was mentioned because of an ongoing investigation into doping during his cycling career. Very different men with completely different claims to fame and yet I’ve followed both of them with fascination.
I’m drawn to moments of individual achievement. Team sports don’t interest me. I follow things like climbing, flying, racing… activities which all have a huge support network but only one guy at the sharp end of things taking the risk and pushing for success. So here are Neil and Lance, with a shared name and personal accomplishments forty years apart. Seeing them together in a news cycle got me thinking about what makes a hero and how celebrity and success have changed.
The advancement of technology and computing has mostly removed real risk and unknowns from the cutting edge of discovery and achievement. Neil Armstrong was a test pilot alongside Chuck Yeager in an era when men strapped into untried planes and pushed the throttles to the firewall. Today the characteristics of new aircraft are known in the computer and wind tunnel before anyone straps into the seat. “Feeling” the aircraft and reporting back has been replaced by executing the test flight-plan to prove out the computer modeling.
Similarly, sports used to be a wild mix of training styles, diets, and pure talent all meeting in a singular event where someone came out on top. Now, guys like Lance Armstrong have nutritionists, trainers, wind-tunnel tests and computer precision to be at their best in the perfect moment. There’s a wash of same-ness across all super-athletes because they all use the same techniques and information. That’s before we even debate if they’ve used the same drugs.
I have to wonder if our celebrity obsessed culture of product endorsements and sponsorship deals has forever destroyed the chance for people of great talent to rise and succeed on their merit alone. Take Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods – phenoms and game changers in their respective sports – but do we know them because of their talent or because Nike made them a brand and an icon? This is the new chicken and the egg debate… Do talented people rise to greatness and then brands step alongside them, or do international brands build people into universally known icons in their field?
Lance Armstrong has a longstanding Nike contract and an equally longstanding rumor of performance enhancing drugs. I’m not saying one is connected to the other. But when nearly every person who rode during Lance’s era was busted for doping it suggests that to compete at a sponsor-worthy level you have no choice but doping. Then I wonder: if the top performers are taking the same drugs in quantities just under detectable levels… doesn’t that suggest they are all now operating on a new even playing field? Or to put it another way, if everyone is equally drug-enhanced… isn’t everyone equal again?
You can’t just be good at something anymore. You have to be good in front of the camera. You have to be the best anyone has ever seen (or at least have a good marketing team who helps you seem like the best ever). You have to be perfect. Never mind that we are all human and frail and destined to moments of failure.
Which brings me to Neil Armstrong. A gifted pilot who, unlike the John Glenn’s of the space program, was never a press darling. He did his job with little fanfare. There was the time his Gemini space capsule spun in orbit and he righted it with flying skill. There was the test-flight of the Lunar lander (nicknamed the flying bedstead) where it malfunctioned, turned over in mid air and Neil tried to save it before ejecting 100-feet off the ground. He should have died, but when asked about the incident he played it off as just another test flight. Here’s a man who was chosen to be the first man on the moon because those making the call assessed him as having “very little ego”. How’s that for a Nike slogan?
Lance Armstrong maintains a successful speaking tour, books sales, sponsorship deals, and a Cancer foundation on the statement “I’ve never failed a drug test”. This doesn’t diminish his seven Tour de France wins in my mind, but it also doesn’t actually answer the question of whether or not drugs helped him get there. He is a brand and a celebrity and a clearly someone with an ego. I think you have to have an ego to get noticed in this sponsored-sport culture. He wrote a book called “it’s not about the Bike”, which is appropriate because if it was only about the bike no one would have noticed.
Neil Armstrong looked out a tiny portal at the surface of the moon and realized the landing zone was covered in boulders. He took manual control and burned the reserve fuel to pilot the lunar-lander to a better spot before saying simply “the Eagle has landed”. Where there drugs in Neil’s system? The military has long used drugs to keep pilots awake for 36 hours at a time. They are “performance enhancing” for certain. And the astronauts were exposed to about everything. But does it matter? Neil walked down a ladder and paused before the Moon’s dusty surface. He’d been told that he “probably wouldn’t sink more than a few inches”, yet no one really knew. He stepped off and said one of the most famous lines of man’s exploration – “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”. And for twenty minutes he walked on the surface before Buzz Aldrin joined him. He is unique among everyone who will ever live. Yet more people know details of a guy who won 7 bike races across France than the first human to stand alone on another world.
Standing out in our current public consciousness requires a person to eventually whore themselves out. The real money and acclaim and opportunity (athletes becoming actors, singers becoming designers, whatever…) comes from building a brand or mystique more than using your talents to do great work. Privacy goes away, people start looking for cracks in the façade, and it soon seems impossible to separate the real talented person from the brand. So, if taking a few substances can maintain your standing a little longer, that’s not a big leap from whoring anyway.
Neil Armstrong refused to sacrifice his privacy. He retired from NASA and taught college for a few years. (I struggle to imagine how differently I might have viewed engineering courses if the professor could have said “I’ve walked on the moon”!) He wound up on various boards and advisory committees related to space and science. He lead the investigation on the Challenger disaster. He rarely signed autographs or made public appearances.
As a result when he died the headlines all read “Neil Armstrong, First man to walk on the moon….” Because the name doesn’t ring a bell to most people.
I wonder what Lance Armstrong’s obituary will read?
Armstrong verses Armstrong, both famous for great accomplishments in their fields. One a near recluse and the other a billboard for a litany of companies including his own.
What defines a hero in our time? Are we inspired to greatness even if the person we’re watching has been drug enhanced? What if they’ve been financially enhanced, or publicity enhanced?
Take a left turn with me and consider your local symphony orchestra. Even if you don’t like classical music we can all appreciate that the musicians are well trained and very talented. But “performance enhancing drugs” are common among concert musicians. No, the guy on first violin isn’t steroid ripped or gushing with extra blood from blood doping. Yet some are known to take “Beta Blockers” which essentially prevent the body from getting nervous and having performance anxiety. We can sit in the audience and enjoy the music, but sometimes drugs are involved to take away the unknowns and put the performer at the top of their game.
Have we reached the end of human accomplishment without the help of “super-human” assistance? Throughout human history we’ve pushed ourselves, bettered ourselves, and sought out new things and new discoveries. We aren’t used to plateaus. We don’t accept world records and inspiriting accomplishments growing stagnant and unsurpassed. We crave bigger, better, and faster. So will the heroes and record breakers of today, and the days to come, all be enhanced like thoroughbreds and cyborgs?
I’d like to think that we can still accomplish great things as simple dedicated humans. It may leave some records unbroken. It may undermine the chance for a new ESPN special or bring about a Nike athlete no more impressive than the last. But maybe, just maybe, big things are still possible by people of talent showing up and walking in their gifts.
Like walking on the moon.