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September 1, 2012

What’s in a name? The difference between a hero and a fraud

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The Daily Star

---- — Two “heroes.”

Both named Armstrong.

One named Neil.

The other named Lance.

One a reluctant celebrity, who once he had done a tremendous service to his country, retired to private life like Cincinnatus returning to his farm after saving Rome.

The other, a seeker of fame and fortune, who repeatedly cheated and lied, desperately clinging to the glare of the spotlight.

One, a symbol of the past and the future, who combined an old-world decency and modesty with the ability to inspire a generation to reach for the stars.

The other, a poster child for all that is false and degrading about our vainglorious present, who lent his name to slick marketing for personal gain and callously let down thousands of young people who looked up to him.

Neil Armstrong, who died at age 82 on Aug. 25, was the first human being to walk upon the surface of the moon. He will be a hero for at least as long as his footprints remain on the lunar surface, which will be thousands of years.

Asked how he felt about those footprints, he once replied: “I kind of hope that somebody goes up there one of these days and cleans them up.”

Lance Armstrong was the best ever at pedaling a bicycle, winning seven Tour de France titles. He overcame testicular cancer and created the Livestrong nonprofit, dedicated to cancer research.

On Wednesday, beginning his speech at a cancer conference in Montreal, he said: “My name is Lance Armstrong. I am a cancer survivor. I’m a father of five. And yes, I won the Tour de France seven times.”

What he didn’t say is that he had to cheat to win all those races and that all of those titles are being taken away from him for a very good reason.

Before he commanded the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in July of 1969, Neil Armstrong was a Navy fighter pilot, a highly regarded test pilot who flew the experimental X-15 rocket 200,000 feet up at 4,000 mph, was the command pilot on the Gemini 8 flight that included the first successful docking of a manned spacecraft with another space vehicle, and kept his cool to land it safely after a system malfunction.

On Apollo 11, he forthrightly overrode the automatic pilot to maneuver the lunar module carrying him and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin away from a rocky crater so that they could land safely.

And yet, while indisputably one of the most famous and heralded people in world history, this is how he described himself in an interview in 2000:

“I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer.”

What Lance Armstrong is, and ever will be, is a phony.

In June, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency charged Armstrong with using performance-enhancing drugs. The USADA had the goods on him — blood samples from 2009 and 2010 and damaging testimony from as many as 10 other cyclists.

On Aug. 23, Armstrong announced that he would no longer fight the charges, and the USADA banned him for life, said he would be disqualified from any results back to Aug. 1, 1998 and that all his medals, titles and prizes would be regarded as forfeited.

“Show me a hero,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “and I’ll write you a tragedy.”

Part of Lance Armstrong’s tragedy is that he would not stand up like even a tarnished hero and admit that he had done wrong. Instead he issued a whiny statement to the Associated Press.

“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ For me, that time is now,” He called the USADA investigation an “unconstitutional witch hunt.”

“I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999,” he said. “The toll this has taken on my family and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today — finished with this nonsense.”

Nonsense?

Honor is nonsense? Truth is nonsense? Ethical conduct is nonsense?

We live in a world that seems to become more shallow and self-centered every day, where self-aggrandizement is encouraged, and modesty and class are disregarded, where every touchdown is occasion for a grotesque dance in the end zone, and just handing the ball to the ref after entering the end zone won’t get you that big endorsement contract.

Neil Armstrong wasn’t perfect. When his boot hit the moon’s surface after descending the module’s ladder, he meant to say, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

But he blew it, accidentally leaving out the “a” so that the phrase the world remembers is, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

It was fitting somehow, that the first words uttered by a person standing on the moon were the result of a very innocent human error. It is even more fitting that Neil is the Armstrong whose name will always be synonymous with honor and achievement.

 Sam Pollak is the editor The Daily Star. He can be reached at spollak@thedailystar.com or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/sampollak