Letter from the Editor

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Is Lance the best?

Within about five minutes of the end of the Tour de Lance, er - Tour de France, the debate was on. The spokes folks had spoken.

Is the unbeatable Armstrong the best athlete today, so far this century, or in the history of the universe? Or just some sissy little cyclist in a clashy yellow disco shirt? It depends who you choose to listen to.

On the night of his triumph, ESPN ran a poll asking who was the greatest athlete in terms of achievements today - Shaq, Barry Bonds, Tiger Woods or Armstrong. But the next morning, on ESPN.com, their columnist Skip Bayless penned a piece called "Lance Finally Comes Up Short."

"Armstrong doesn't qualify as the greatest all-around athlete because cycling doesn't test enough athletic talent or skill. And he doesn't qualify for greatest performer because his sport doesn't have the equivalent of last-second shots or throws or catches, of two-outs-in-the-ninth swings or of final-hole putts," he wrote.

To this I would argue with all due respect, "Pshaw, you bonehead."

I had never thought about Lance Armstrong in comparison with other athletes in different sports, but the ESPN poll got me pondering.

Who, in this toddling millennium, has been better at what they do than Armstrong? Anybody got seven straight World Series going? Super Bowls? Stanley Cups?

How do you compare slam dunking, home run hitting, putting out of the fringe and riding bikes up the side of French mountains, anyway?

Would Shaq be the greatest athlete? His ability mostly rests in seven-foot, three hundred pound genetics. I'm not saying that it doesn't take talent, skill and training, but the man can dunk with his beefy toes barely off the ground - and he still hasn't learned to shoot free throws with the consistency expected of a good girls high school player.

Would Barry Bonds be the greatest athlete? He's had a long and tremendous career, quick and skilled on defense and the basepaths. He has been incredibly conditioned. Can he ride a bike across France? - beats me, I don't want to have the taste slapped out of my mouth, so you ask him. Baseball is perhaps slower paced than other sports, but hitting a 95 mph pill with a stick may be the hardest sports feat. Bonds may very well be the best ever in baseball. He's also been surly, and embroiled in steroid use controversy.

Would Tiger Woods be the greatest athlete? Golf is as much a mental skill as a sport, there's no speed involved, no collisions, but there is incredible pressure and a mix of strength and fine muscle control. Tiger has done amazing things, but he's also been fallible at times, and occasionally a little weird. He looks like he could bike, but he's too busy driving those Buicks.

Would Armstrong be the greatest athlete then? Seven Tour wins in a row is pretty incredible. His stamina is amazing. But is riding a bike the most impressive sports skill? Armstrong specialized in a single race, against many competitors who race in many events across Europe. He has teammates to help form the race, mechanics to make him the best of mounts. And he is retiring at 33, an age when many of the great athletes are soldiering on with more achievements.

It all makes for a great bar debate.

And there are those who would argue for today's athletes who didn't make the list - football's Michael Vick, basketball's Alan Iverson, baseball's Roger Clemons, swimmer Michael Phelps, Olympic decathlete Tom Pappas, former ISU wrestler Cale Sanderson, along with the greats of soccer, Olympic women's softball and ironman triathlons come to mind.

In the historic scheme of things, you have to think Michael Jordan, Pele, Jim Brown, Wayne Gretsky, Roger Bannister, Carl Lewis, Bo Jackson, Mark Spitz, Babe Ruth, Wilt Chamberlain, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Joe Louis, Jack Nicklaus, Richard Petty, Red Grange, Joe DiMaggio. How about Bobby Orr, Mickey Mantle, Jerry Rice, Willie Mays, Jackie Joyner-Kersee? I'll bet you have a favorite or two I've missed.

Let's face facts, though. Winning in sports isn't all that important in a historical sense. It isn't life and death. Usually.

The real greats have to bring something more to the table. They have to be human, courageous, decent. They have to overcome the nearly impossible. They have to be in it for more than money. And they have to inspire, to change things.

A rarified few can claim that status. Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens, Billie Jean King, Muhammed Ali, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson. They broke the barriers. They inspired. They changed things.

That's where Lance Armstrong comes in.

In beating cancer and living up to his pledge to come back and compete, and in convincing a country to "Live Strong," Lance Armstrong is more than the sum of a resume of French bicycle races, a rock star second wife and a marketable celebrity appeal.

After him, the sport of bike racing will sink back into relative anonymity with the rest of the the great endurance sports that we seldom get to see. These are athletes who compete against themselves, mainly; most don't crave the spotlight.

But post-Lance, never again will we accept cancer as a death sentence. How many have seem him ride on, and decided not to give in without a fight? Lance climbed a mountain much steeper than anything the French Alps have to offer, and son of a gun, wasn't it beautiful to see?

The greatest athlete? I don't know. I don't care. His legacy will be larger. Not the greatest athlete, but a great man, one who has transcended his sport.

Barry Bonds, Tiger Woods and Shaq are great athletes, but there is more to living than sports. Get off the high horses, get on the bike. My vote goes to Lance.