F. Scott Fitzgerald may have been a glass half empty kind of guy - but he had a point. Heroes are set up to fall. It's no accident that the culture which contributed most to western society was obsessed with heroes, tragedy, and sports. Whether because of hubris or merely the passing of time - the hero can never stay in our mind as they were when they were great. Can you picture Ali standing over Liston without also thinking of him trembling as he struggled to light the Olympic flame? It was a great moment - but it was also a sad moment - as we were reminded that even the greatest athletes among us are susceptible to the ravages of disease.
I've written and talked many times about my contempt for dopers in sports, but even I will admit that Lance Armstrong accomplished a lot of positive things in his life. I may question his motives, but nobody can question the results of raising $500 million for cancer research and inspiring millions of people.
Another Armstrong was also in the news this week. Neil Armstrong could have turned his first "small steps" into a political career or at least a lucrative endorsement/speaking career. Instead he stayed out of the limelight - dedicating himself to pretty much exactly what he did before those first steps - as he put it "I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer." Armstrong seems to be one of the few examples of a hero where there was no tragedy. He seemed to understand the perils of trying to hold on to his moment for the sake of celebrity or fortune.
It's hard to say whether there are any lessons to be learned from either of these men. Maybe Neil could have done a lot of good in the world if he had been a little more hungry for fame and fortune. And maybe the world would have been worse off if Lance had just said "no" to drugs - never won a Tour de France - and silently slipped off into obscurity.
I guess the world may need people like Lance - someone whose drive to be great pushes him to acts that are both good and bad - but a healthy society, IMHO, is one where we still hold him accountable for the bad and prefer our heroes to act like Neil.
One last quote from Neil Armstrong - of his first step, he said, "It was special and memorable but it was only instantaneous because there was work to do. We weren't there to meditate. We were there to get things done. So we got on with it."
If only I can remember that as I'm bobbing up and down in Lake Monona in a couple of weeks.