NORMAN — Two “heroes.” Both named Armstrong.
One named Neil. The other named Lance.
One a reluctant celebrity who, once he had done a tremendous service to his country, retired to private life.
The other, a seeker of fame and fortune, who repeatedly cheated and lied, desperately clinging to the glare of the spotlight.
One a symbol of the past and the future, who combined an old-world decency and modesty with the ability to inspire a generation to reach for the stars.
The other, a poster child for all that is false and degrading about our vainglorious present, who lent his name to slick marketing for personal gain and callously let down thousands of young people who looked up to him.
Neil Armstrong, who died at age 82 on Aug. 25, was the first human to walk on the moon. He will be a hero for at least as long as his footprints remain on the lunar surface.
Lance Armstrong was the best ever at pedaling a bicycle, winning seven Tour de France titles. He overcame testicular cancer and created the Livestrong nonprofit, dedicated to cancer research.
On Wednesday, beginning his speech at a cancer conference in Montreal, he said, “My name is Lance Armstrong. I am a cancer survivor. I’m a father of five. And yes, I won the Tour de France seven times.”
What he didn’t say is he had to cheat to win all of those races, and all of those titles are being taken away for good reason.
Before he commanded the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in July 1969, Neil Armstrong was a Navy fighter pilot and a highly regarded test pilot who flew the experimental X-15 rocket 200,000 feet up at 4,000 mph. He was the command pilot on the Gemini 8 flight that included the first successful docking of a manned spacecraft with another space vehicle, and he kept his cool to land it safely after a system malfunction.
On Apollo 11, he forthrightly overrode the automatic pilot to maneuver the lunar module carrying him and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin away from a rocky crater so they could land safely.
And yet, while one of the most famous and heralded people in world history, this is how he described himself in an interview in 2000: “I am — and ever will be — a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer.”
What Lance Armstrong is, and ever will be, is a phony.
In June, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency charged Armstrong with using performance-enhancing drugs. The USADA had the goods on him — blood samples from 2009 and 2010 and damaging testimony from as many as 10 other cyclists.
On Aug. 23, Armstrong announced he would no longer fight the charges, and the USADA banned him for life, said he would be disqualified from any results back to Aug. 1, 1998, and that all his medals, titles and prizes would be regarded as forfeited.
“Show me a hero,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “and I’ll write you a tragedy.”
Part of Lance Armstrong’s tragedy is that he would not stand up like even a tarnished hero and admit he had done wrong. Instead, he issued a whiny statement to the Associated Press.
“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ For me, that time is now,” he said, calling the USADA investigation an “unconstitutional witch hunt.”
We live in a world that seems to become more shallow and self-centered every day, where self-aggrandizement is encouraged, modesty and class are disregarded, and every touchdown is occasion for a grotesque dance in the end zone.
Neil Armstrong wasn’t perfect. When his boot hit the moon’s surface, he meant to say, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
He blew it, accidentally leaving out the “a” so the phrase the world remembers is, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
It was fitting somehow that the first words uttered by a person standing on the moon were the result of an innocent human error. It is even more fitting that Neil is the Armstrong whose name will always be synonymous with honor and achievement.
Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star in Oneonta, N.Y. . Contact him at email@example.com.