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Why Lance Armstrong is important

By Steven Martinovich

The Professor(August 1, 2005) His feat was truly staggering. Against a field that numbered in the hundreds, American cyclist Lance Armstrong managed to win the Tour de France for a seventh consecutive year late last month weekend.

It would be tempting to dismiss Armstrong as just an athlete who performed amazing feats in a sport only watched faithfully by Europeans. He wasn't controversial for the most part, staying out of politics -- his support of the American-led coalition invasion of Iraq was the only public policy stand he took during his career -- and maintained a private life notable only for dating singer Sheryl Crow.

There is plenty to praise the 33-year old for. He was one of the hardest working members of his profession. Eschewing lesser races, he dedicated himself to the world's most famous cycle race and trained all-year round for it. The sport he excels at is the supreme individualistic sport, one that sees a player fight not only a field of competitors but nature and a host of variables that would leave most of us finished not long after we left the starting line. There was, of course, his famous battle with cancer which nearly ended his career.

Simply put, cycling at the level Armstrong engaged in could be considered one of the ultimate games of the intellect. Racing demands the consideration of an incredible amount of factors that separates those who view it as a hobby and those who drive themselves to excel. Armstrong was clearly one of the latter, but that's not why he's important, not only to cycling and its fans, but also to society as a whole. There's always been a lot of talk about the roles that athletes play in our society. Although Charles Barkley famously declared that he was no one's role model, just a basketball player, athletes do occupy a moral place in our society.

There's a reason for that, though most people don't give it much thought. Unlike our world, which is filled with arbitrary rules handed down by tradition or distant politicians and leaves us never quite knowing what we are allowed to do, whether we will be rewarded or punished, athletics is a clearly defined world with rules that favour no one. For the players, a sport is a mental and physical battle, while for the spectator, a sport gives us a shared universal language for excellence. Watching sports allows us to indulge in our capacity for admiration.

Whether it's the Tour de France, the World Series or the Stanley Cup finals, we're told that our time would be better spent doing something productive. We should be worrying about homelessness, racism or wars in distant countries, not whether one team - or cyclist -- defeats another in what is ultimately a meaningless contest. Self-denial and service to others are ideals, we're told, and it's not right to watch something for no other reason than self-enjoyment.

Sports -- and specifically Lance Armstrong -- gives us a chance to celebrate humanity. He and the sport he participated in allow us to laud skill, intelligence and ultimately achievement. It gives us, as writer Thomas Bowden once put it, a "spiritual fuel" that flows to us from another person's achievement. It inspires and gives us the moral courage to fight our own battles every day. We may not be able to do what Armstrong did, but we can try and use his example and do the best we can at our jobs.

Armstrong may only be a cyclist, and not someone deemed as important to society such as a doctor or teacher, but he reminds us that anything can be had with old-fashioned hard work and principles. For that, Armstrong -- along with being the finest cyclist in the world -- is life's most valuable player and a true example of the beauty of humanity.

Thanks for reading,

Steven Martinovich


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