When Armstrong announced he had testicular cancer, I never thought for a second that he would die or even retire from professional cycling. No matter how irrational or contrary to what I was reading about his physical condition, I simply never entertained the thought of him not racing bikes again. Guys with that much grit and determination don’t take the easy way out and do something like retire.
Now that it’s 2003, the thoughts I had back in 1996 seem so, well, normal. How could anyone ever have doubted that Armstrong would survive cancer and become one of the greatest cyclists ever, particularly after having now won four consecutive Tours de France and becoming the new patron of professional cycling? In this age of fallen business leaders and athletes plagued by legitimate accusations of drug use, Armstrong’s ability to conquer cancer, infertility, and the Tour on little more than hard work and willpower has entered the collective conscience to such an extent that he is no longer just a professional cyclist or cancer survivor. Rather, he’s now Lance Armstrong the American Hero.
Once you become an American Hero, it’s only natural to want to cash in on all the hard work and make a few bucks. With a wife and three kids to support, Armstrong definitely needs to make money to feed all the hungry mouths in his house and that explains why he’s inked lucrative endorsement deals with, among others, Coca-Cola, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Nike. Armstrong has even co-authored a wildly popular book, It’s Not About the Bike – My Journey Back to Life, which topped the bestseller list and earned him a good chunk of change. Without question, Armstrong has parlayed his hero status into a life of financial security.
One caveat to an American Hero’s right to cash in, though, is that the hero can’t go too far with the self-marketing or otherwise he risks losing the respect and adoration of those who think he’s a hero. No matter how much an American Hero accomplishes, there are some things he just can’t do if he wants to remain a hero and overexposing himself with endorsements is one of them.
When I read about Armstrong’s recent deal with Subaru to market the Japanese automaker’s cars for the next five years, I couldn’t help but think that he may have finally gone too far. What does Armstrong know about cars anyway? Probably about as much as Tiger Woods knows about Buicks and Celine Dion knows about Chryslers – not a lot.
There’s also nothing about Armstrong that makes me want to buy a car. While he may inspire me to buy a Trek frame or Nike cycling shoes, that’s only because he actually uses those products in his profession and knows a thing or two about them. But a car? No way. Everybody drives cars and just because Armstrong — a professional cyclist and not an auto mechanic — drives a Subaru doesn’t mean it’s better than any other car out there. Michael Jordan selling underwear and hot dogs never made me want to use those products and Armstrong selling Subarus won’t drive me to car lot to buy one of those, either.
My suspicion about Armstrong going too far with his endorsement deals was confirmed when I also read that “two Hollywood studios are bidding for his life story.” If Armstrong takes the bait and sells the rights to his story, there is no way Hollywood could possibly make a good film unless it’s a documentary. For example, unless Armstrong plays himself, much like Howard Stern did in Private Parts, we’re going to end up seeing some actor who knows nothing about cycling portray one of the world’s greatest cyclists, a sure recipe for disaster. There is simply no American actor capable of capturing Armstrong’s determination and tenacity on a bike and the thought of watching some actor giving Jan Ullrich “the look” makes me want to retch.
More simply, though, a Hollywood film could never do professional cycling justice. The sport is simply too hard and filled with too many nuances to accurately translate to American cinema. And contrary to the title of Armstrong’s now famous book, any movie about him would have to be equally about cycling and cancer, as Armstrong’s life is defined not by cancer alone, but by his return to professional cycling from cancer. Without his post-cancer cycling achievements, Armstrong would be nothing more than a cancer survivor and in this country, unfortunately, surviving cancer is now so common that it is no longer out of the ordinary or heroic.
Although I’m no American Hero and never will be, I know that it’s hard to stand in those shoes. The opportunities are plentiful and the temptation to cash in and take the most lucrative deals is overwhelming. If I were in those shoes I’m not sure I could resist that temptation and do what’s right. But, alas, that’s one of the reasons I, like most, remain a nobody.
Armstrong, however, is a somebody and an American Hero at that, and time and time again he’s demonstrated that he’s willing to do the right thing no matter how unpleasant. Selling cars, having a Hollywood movie made about one’s life, and writing a follow-up “inspirational” book (entitled Every Second Counts and due in October) are not the right things, though. While difficult, sometimes the hero must say “no” to the endorsement or film deal, no matter how much money is on the table. All too often, however, the temptation is to hard to resist, even for an American Hero.
I hope for Armstrong’s sake that he continues to do the right thing and resists the temptation of trading respect for the almighty dollar. As history makes clear, once you go too far with the endorsements and the deals, much like Jim Palmer and Michael Jordan have done, you cease to be the quintessential American Hero and end up being just some guy selling mens’s underwear. And while that may be financially lucrative, it sure doesn’t make one worthy of being an American Hero.
You can read more of Jeff’s views on cycling at his website: www.jeffcross.net
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