x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Two Armstrongs were heroes for different times

The death of Neil Armstrong and the decline of Lance Armstrong prompts reflections on two kinds of hero.

Wherever you stand on the project that propelled a dozen American men on to the Moon between 1969 and 1972, it is hard to shake the feeling that the world is a smaller, even slighter place than it was when Neil Armstrong was still alive a week ago.

There are many who argue that Nasa's Moon missions, which cast Armstrong as possibly the last great American hero, was little more than a piece of political one-upmanship and a desperate attempt by President John F Kennedy to get his fledgling administration back on track.

In May 1961, when JFK promised to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, his presidency had already been humiliated in the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and been caught on the hop by the Soviet Union's space programme which had sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit. The president badly needed some grand gesture to best his Cold War rivals. What could be better than shooting for the Moon?

This was a brilliant, if costly gamble by the young president. (In total, the project gobbled up more than US$25billion (Dh92bn) of 1960s money, a staggering amount even without valuing it in today's terms, when it would be nearer $170bn). Nevertheless, it is one which the average modern American will probably believe was worth paying even if four decades ago the public soon grew tired of watching astronauts hit golf balls across the lunar landscape and a recession-stretched US government decided that all that money and endeavour was better expended on issues closer to home.

Andrew Smith, whose brilliant book Moon Dust followed the differing fortunes of the dozen moonwalkers after they came back to Earth, summed up the world's continued and collective fascination with this most exclusive group (only eight now survive, none of them young) by writing they will all be "forever caught between the gravitational pull of the Moon and the Earth's collective dreaming".

Armstrong's graceful withdrawal from public life also reminds us of a different kind of hero, one who meets extraordinary challenges with unflappable calm, one who flourished in an era when space meant more than cyberspace. A man of impeccable timing - he landed his lunar module with just seconds of fuel to spare in 1969 before gathering himself to utter those (probably scripted) words about steps and mankind - his death also swept away much of the angst-ridden consideration of his namesake Lance, the former endurance cyclist, whose story had threatened to overwhelm the news cycle last weekend.

Lance Armstrong was an altogether more modern American hero: brash and abrasive, disliked and adored in almost equal measure, he conquered impossible personal circumstances and testicular cancer to win seven consecutive Tours de France. He could rightly claim to be the greatest. But in doing so, did he use fair means or foul?

His decision last weekend to say enough is enough and withdraw from what his supporters call an unfair fight (Armstrong himself calls it a witch-hunt) against the US anti-doping agencies, means that he is likely to be stripped of his titles by the sport's world governing body and that the finger of suspicion will remain pointed at him in perpetuity. It is, however, worth reminding ourselves that Armstrong never failed a drug test in his competitive years (he took more than 500) and that the allegations that surround him, as damning as they might appear, have only gathered speed years after his victories were won.

In a month that began with the Olympic Games, an occasion so full of heroic endeavour it almost overflowed, it seems particularly cruel to end it on a more sombre note with the fall of two all-American heroes. An old cliché it might be, but they don't make them like they used to.