A weekend newspaper column had the heading ‘Armstrong is being written out of history’. This took me aback: a consistent theme of the tributes to the first man on the moon has been his immovable place in our collective history.
A few lines into the column and I realised it was another Armstrong being discussed – Lance.
The commentator was writing before the announcement of Neil Armstrong’s death: in contrast to the astronaut, the younger Armstrong’s status as an American hero has never looked very secure. For starters, French cycling enthusiasts and journalists were whispering about the man and his methods long before he had notched up his seventh and final Tour de France win. In Europe, he was a transatlantic imposter in a sport traditionally dominated by Continental riders. Perhaps, unlike his late namesake, he was only revered in his native country.
The other striking difference is that Neil Armstrong was always a modest figure, and after his seminal moment stepped out of the limelight into quiet academia and retirement. Lance Armstrong is a domineering character, and the animosity he has aroused is playing a part in his downfall.
The cyclist has never been tested positive for drugs, and it may be that history will ultimately judge him kindly. But the aggressively competitive nature that got him to the top of steep Alpine climbs probably means ‘notorious’ rather than ‘famous’ or ‘iconic’ will be the adjective associated with him.