Lance Armstrong. The very name speaks of acts beyond excellence. His greatness seems obvious, and the man can be considered a real-life superhero. In 1998, Armstrong declared that he had defeated an aggressive form of cancer, and then went on to create a record-breaking career. In the summer of 2004, the American became the first rider to win the heroic poem that is Le Tour de France six times, and he won his titles in a row. When Lance Armstrong announced that he had conquered death, the American media and public hardly knew who he was, but when Armstrong embarked on the Tour de France of 2005 he was hailed as one of the greatest American athletes ever. And not only that: When the Discovery Channel’s ballot for its Greatest American was reduced to 25 candidates, two of them were athletes: Muhammad Ali and Lance Armstrong.
But the greatest American is not necessarily the same in the USA as it is elsewhere.
In America, Lance Armstrong has been promoted as a one-man tour de force, and the triumphs in the Tour de France have been his triumphs. This, however, is only partly true, as the bike-riding of the Tour de France isn’t an individual sport–it’s a team sport. Even if you have the all-around qualities and tactical intelligence of Lance Armstrong, there is no way you can win the classic if you don’t have a team that can help you control the field.
The dominating forces in American media have been obsessed since 9/11 with promoting the team effort, at least when American teams have been involved. Curiously, however, the internationally diverse team that has supported Lance Armstrong has received little attention from the American media–the riders have been extras behind the superstar from the USA. But while the American media, by and large, have focused on the individual efforts of Lance Armstrong, many bike enthusiasts in European countries have highlighted the team effort behind Armstrong’s winning streak.
And while many Americans have embraced Lance Armstrong, he has not managed to win over most bike aficionados in Europe–the American has simply been too dominant to trigger the imagination of many bike fans overseas.
This is nothing new in the Tour de France. Belgian Eddy Merckx was considered a cannibal who devoured his opponents, and when he was going for his sixth overall title he was even assaulted by a spectator who had turned into an anti-Merckxist. Spaniard Miguel Indurain was compared to a machine, and few felt despair when he ran out of steam in the Alps chasing his sixth title. Even the beloved Frenchman Louison Bobet lost some of his popularity after his third straight title in 1955! That 2005 brings the end of the Armstrong epoch is a relief to many.
Armstrong’s dominance, although giving the rider an air of a superhero in America, has turned him into less than a hero in Europe, where he has been perceived by many as an aggressive powermonger. In 2004, when Italian rider Filippo Simeoni tried to go for a single-stage victory, Lance Armstrong single-handedly put a stop to the attempt, which, if successful, would not have threatened the American. Armstrong’s action was against the Tour de France bikers’ unwritten chivalrous code. Some in the European media wondered if this had anything to do with Simeoni testifying against Armstrong’s doctor, Michele Ferrari, in a doping trail. In 2003, when the American fell off his bike while being handed food, Tyler Hamilton and Armstrong’s antagonist Jan Ullrich waited for him. Instead of giving the two their due, Armstrong said that their behavior was only to be expected–after all, Armstrong had waited for Ullrich the previous year. This, as certain Europeans have claimed, is not the way of the hero–it is the way of someone much too eager to demonstrate his power.
Sport is partly about being awed by the achievements of the athletes, but it’s also about identification. While Lance Armstrong forevermore is an important part of the history of the Tour de France, and an all-American hero, he did not manage to win the love of the majority of Europeans. In America, Lance Armstrong’s dominance has turned him into a superhero. In Europe, his dominance has brought with it the status of someone into power politics. To quite a few Europeans, Lance Armstrong has simply been too super.