Sunday, July 24, 2005


At the request of a particularly lucid friend, I've channeled my energies into some writing on a non-musical topic. Apologies if the following piece is ill-considered, poorly worded, or just plain insulting to your intelligence. It bears no greater significance to any external issues or debates not mentioned therein. It is but a humble exercise in idolatry.

On the Definition of Greatness.

What does it mean to achieve greatness? Sure, there are many people living today, and many more throughout history, of whom it may be said, "That person has done something great. That person set out to accomplish something beyond our expectations, and he (or she, as the case may be) succeeded." One only has to look as far as the newspaper or television to know that every day, someone is living a moment in their life that could be reasonably noted as being great.

In the business world, there are innumerable millionaires pursued a dream of creating a useful product or making shrewd bets on the stock market. Surely they must think their existence to be great at one time or another. The realm of science allows for greatness as well, what with the creation of technologies and medicines that comfort those who have been struck down by illness. And some of our world's most fertile minds have been enshrined in the Pantheon for their contributions to the arts and culture. But is there not something else, some intangible thing that places certain feats above others? Certainly, in the public mind, the greatness achieved by a driven business person or (forgive me) a particularly erudite author is not quite the same as that of a soldier who risked his life to save that of a fallen comrade. What we are trying to get at, in such a circuitous manner, is the notion of courage. It is courage that spurs a person to true greatness, and it is courage identified by witnesses to an achievement that defines its greatness for the here and now and for the annals of history.

In the athletic sphere, few have ever been as courageous as Lance Armstrong, the American cyclist. On this day, Armstrong, wrapped in a familiar yellow tunic and encircled by eight faithful lieutenants, pedalled around Paris' famed Champs-Elysses for the seventh and final time as victor in one of sport's most gruelling events. In the Tour de France, 189 men subject themselves to riding a bicycle for more than 3,000 kilometres over 21 days, stopping for rest on only two of those days. For certain stages of the race, riders travel more than 200 kilometres laterally, and climb thousands of feet vertically, to the summits of some of Earth's highest mountains. Many participants consider it an achievement just to complete the three week circuit. Armstrong has not only finished the Tour, but finished it faster than anyone else, on seven consecutive occasions. Consider this: before Armstrong, only five men had won the Tour five times in the race's nearly 100-year history – undeniably great feats in and of themselves. None of those men survived brain cancer.

It can of course be argued that the pursuit of prolonged greatness can have a detrimental effect on the pursuer's public image. As the saying goes, bodies always lie in the wake of a driven man. Armstrong is no exception. He has often been criticized as being too determined, too stone-faced. Recently, a former team mate disclosed that Armstrong's success came at the expense of friendship within his squad, something that is so often at the heart of team sports. Such knowledge of the man may diminish his accomplishments for some. But does his willingness to set aside those considerations not make his success all the more impressive? Of course, this is a man endowed with good genes and natural ability, but let's not forget that Armstrong's job for much of the last decade was to endure hours of mind numbing physical punishment every day, alone. This is a man who has been known to ride his bicycle up mountains during snow storms. And before that, he knew the special hell that is chemotherapy. The measure of will required to bear suffering on such levels is almost inconceivable.

Today, Lance Armstrong retired from professional cycling. He was victorious in one of sport's greatest endurance events more times than anyone else, ever, after surviving a battle with the mortal scourge of our time. His legend will no doubt live on for those with intimate and not-so-intimate interest in his chosen sport. But his great achievements will be remembered by countless others, for whom Armstrong's courage will be an inspiration.

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Anonymous dog in water said...

Right on. We each have champions in our own lives (family, friends etc.) But Lance is an icon who can inspire us all, and brings us closer for it. He's a Champion for all of us.

7/25/2005 1:06 a.m.  

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