TCS Daily

Putting the 'Champ' in Champs-Elysee

By Ilya Shapiro - July 26, 2005 12:00 AM

"You never know what life will bring, but that would be pretty painful," answered the newly crowned seven-time Tour de France champion when asked whether he could ever see himself doing a 9-to-5 job.

Of course, to some of us, pedaling over 15,000 miles (the combined distance of his victorious races), much of it over the Alps and Pyrenees, and over flatlands scorched by the continental summer, would be pretty painful. To some of us, extensive chemo- and radiation therapy, after doctors give you a 40% chance of surviving metastasized testicular cancer, would be pretty painful. To some of us, constantly being accused of cheating, when your entire life is spent under the biggest microscope (and most frequently used chemistry kit) in the sporting world, would be pretty painful.

But not to Lance Armstrong. No, to the human engine that did, the walking -- nay, riding -- medical/scientific/kinesiological miracle, the man whose resting pulse is a catatonic 32 beats per minute, it is schlepping into the office with the rest of us that would be, understandably, an excruciating ordeal.

After all, if you were the fittest person in the history of people, wouldn't you be driven out of your mind by having to sit in an ergonomically correct chair all day, typing up TPS reports and the like? (And that is not to mention the 9-to-5 jobs that actually are bodily taxing to the point of physical pain.)

But Lance -- like all the athletes who need but one name: Pele, Diego, Babe, Mick, Magic, Tiger, etc. -- is about more than overcoming adversity and transcending the domain of mere mortals, more than being larger than any life you or I could know. He personifies all that we want out of our athletes, who carry the weight of a city or a nation upon their broad backs.

Moreover, unlike so many stars, he backs it up with his "off-the-field" endeavors, starting with his general demeanor and continuing through the over $85 million that he has raised for cancer research (including selling over 50 million of those ridiculous yellow bracelets that have become the fashion accessory that will never go out of style -- and that has spawned copycats for every charity, cause, and half-baked sentiment). Not only is Armstrong the man you want to watch on TV on a lazy Sunday afternoon; he is the man you would want as your son-in-law. Not only will Lance not retire to a leisured life of golf and permanent vacation, he plans to remain with Discovery Channel, pursuing (and sharing with us) his interests in science, health, and exotic travel.

Almost as importantly, this superman, this monster of the midday mountain climb, is all too human. We may not be millionaires or sporting heroes, talk on the phone with the President or date rock stars, but most of us at some point have at least a brush with cancer or divorce and we all try to do what is best for our families while striving for personal achievement.

It is no wonder that Armstrong is seen by some as a Horatio Alger on wheels, no surprise that he himself does not discount the possibility of one day entering the political arena. (Cycling aficionado John Kerry has already been wooing him, but heck if anyone knows what his leanings are -- and that's the point, unless it's beside it.) One thing the yellow-jerseyed one already has over those who typically announce their retirements at a press conference is that we actually believe him -- with good reason -- when he says that he's leaving to "spend more time with [his] children."

If all that is not enough, Lance Armstrong also now belongs to that even more exclusive VIP room within the athletic pantheon: He walked away from the sport when he was still its best practitioner. He did not play out the string at DH while his batting average fell, did not tarnish his record by losing to tomato cans in the twilight of his career, did not return to a weak team after hitting the threepeat-winning shot over Utah. Instead he joins the likes of Joe DiMaggio, John Elway, Ray Bourque, and Pete Sampras, whose very last athletic effort reinforced their standing as the greatest champions of all time.

Mr. Armstrong, I salute you. To evoke your namesake, you took many (relatively) short rides for man but made one giant example for mankind.

If there were any cosmic justice in the world of cycling -- and if anyone really cared about growing the sport in America -- some entrepreneur would sponsor a great new race here in Armstrong's honor. I suggest putting it in the champ's native Texas and calling it the Tour de Lance.

Ilya Shapiro is a Washington lawyer and writer who pens the "Dispatches from Purple America" column for TCS. His last piece endorsed President Bush's nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court.


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