Racing to the finish

Armstrong is beyond a mere sports hero

April 24, 2005|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

An article in the Perspective section last Sunday said that Lance Armstrong divorced his wife who nursed him through cancer. Armstrong met her after completing chemotherapy, though before fully recovering the strength that led to his return to the top levels of bicycle racing.

You start with the name. Armstrong. Could it be more perfect? OK, it's his legs that make him go, but that's just a touch of irony. He's the old radio show Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy come to life.

Then there's the home -- Texas, the old-fashioned womb of American heroes. It's Davy Crockett at the Alamo. It's every cowboy who strapped on a six-shooter and headed out onto the prairie seeking truth and justice. It's the Lone Star State -- a part of and apart from the United States.

That would have been enough. Lance Armstrong burst onto the world's cycling scene in the 1993, winning the biggest race in this country, the USPro championship, and a stage of the Tour de France, and becoming the youngest-ever world champion, beating the best in Oslo, Norway.

As his victories continued over the next three years, Armstrong became a hero to the small group of Americans who follow the sport of bicycle racing. He inherited the mantle that had been worn by Greg LeMond, who first showed that an American could excel at this European-dominated sport, winning the Tour de France in 1986, 1989 and 1990, and the World Championship in 1983 and 1989.

"I'm not the next Greg Le Mond," Armstrong famously said. "I'm the first Lance Armstrong."

It was brash. It was American. It was Texan.

And it was true.

No one knew how true at the time. Lance Armstrong was about to go from sports hero to American hero, transcending sport to enter the realm of mythology. How many athletes' retirement plans are front-page news? Armstrong's announcement last week that he planned to cease competitive cycling after this year's Tour de France was.

Armstrong reached the status of myth by taking a journey no one wants to make, no matter the payoff, from the peak of physical health to the brink of death, with cancer that started in his testicles -- he thought he was just sore from so much time on the bike -- and spread to his brain.

That he survived is a miracle. That he came back to win the Tour de France a record six straight times is beyond that.

Now, as he races to the finish of his remarkable odyssey, millions are projecting on him their desire for a heroic conclusion -- a seventh victory -- when so many others have fallen short and cynicism is endemic.

"The idea of a hero who was given up on in a way and makes his triumphant return is a very powerful theme," says Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, who teaches classical mythology at Wesleyan University. "There is something genuinely mythological about it."

Physical prowess is always involved. Armstrong would not have such status if he were, say, a politician.

Szegedy-Maszak compares Armstrong to Odysseus, thought lost after the Trojan war, but instead put through a series of tests by the gods before returning home and regaining his rightful status, "through a combination of strength and cleverness," as he puts it.

Or Achilles, who, sulking after an insult, withdrew from fighting in Troy. "He sits out for a while and comes roaring back," Szegedy-Maszak says.

But he thinks the best comparison might be Philoctetes, the greatest of Greek archers, who was bitten by a snake while on his way to Troy and abandoned by his compatriots. Because of a prophecy, he was brought back, his wound healed by the gods, and was a key figure in the Greek victory.

"Armstrong is such a powerful figure precisely because he has lived that dream that we can find our way back from the edge of the abyss," Szegedy-Maszak says. "And not just come back to a day-to-day existence, but come back as champion of champions. Just how great is that? It doesn't get any better."

LeMond took a similar journey, nearly killed in a hunting accident after his first Tour win, sitting out two years recovering, then returning to a triumph considered the most exciting finish ever as he made up a seemingly insurmountable amount of time in the last day's time trial to win by eight seconds.

But that remained a great sports story, not a great myth. Perhaps that's because gunshots come from men; cancer comes from the gods.

"There is that kind of existential hope he offers us," says David Andrews, who studies the sociology of sports at the University of Maryland. "We could all get cancer, so perhaps we are all partly living through his regeneration."

There are many who claim that Armstrong also needed help from evil gods -- the performance-enhancing drugs that plague his sport -- to make this journey. He has been under immense scrutiny yet has never been caught cheating. But even that becomes part of the myth, that no mortal man could do what he has done.

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