Lance Armstrong is Incomparable

It's about this time of year when we remember winners are hard to come by in Cincinnati. The Reds are beginning to auction off veteran players, hoping to salvage their fifth consecutive losing s

Jerry Dowling

It's about this time of year when we remember winners are hard to come by in Cincinnati.

The Reds are beginning to auction off veteran players, hoping to salvage their fifth consecutive losing season with a handful of prospects. The Bengals will be in camp soon, attempting their first winning season in 15 years.

Five straight years without winning in either of two pro sports. No wonder Reds fans were so crabby when the ball club jilted high expectations with a terrible start.

But riding through the streets of Paris on July 24 was a winner who could be claimed by any city, in America or the world, for there's never been a winner quite like Lance Armstrong, who retired on the Champs Elysees with his seventh consecutive Tour de France championship.

We're wondering now if Armstrong is the greatest athlete of all time. It's a silly question, as always, comparing apples with oranges, bananas and grapes. But just sticking with apples and oranges, consider how Armstrong has dominated the premier event in a particular kind of sport, an individual sport in which the competitors don't directly confront each other one-on-one. That eliminates tennis, boxing and wrestling, but leaves under consideration golf, diving, gymnastics, figure skating, auto racing and the events of track and field.

Diving, gymnastics and figure skating are judged, which doesn't mean their greats aren't great. But it remains that a judge decides, rather than a clock or a score. They're a bit like college football that way. So, throw them out and we're down to golf, athletics and car racing.

The comparisons remain imperfect. Some will say bicycling is a team sport with teammates responsible for drafting, creating interference and so forth. Fine. To what extent is a team championship in the Tour de France even recognized? The team's purpose is to support its dominant individual. It remains that a team supports the individual, as Armstrong acknowledged from the podium.

With all Armstrong's additional talk about equipment and mechanics, maybe bike racing is most comparable with auto racing. If so, no driver's dominance is any match for Armstrong, as no driver has won the Indianapolis 500 or the Daytona 500 more than twice in a row.

Maybe, considering cycling's team aspects, we should bring the NBA into the mix, because an NBA team basically is a cast in support of a star. We always talk about the championships won by Jordan, Russell, Magic and Duncan, as well as the championships that weren't won by Karl Malone or Charles Barkley.

It's starting to look like the only truly individual sports are golf and track.

Golf has never been dominated by anyone the way Armstrong has dominated the Tour or the above mentioned monopolized the NBA championship. For the record, no golfer has ever won the Masters three years in a row and it's been more than 100 years since Willie Anderson won three straight U.S. Opens (1903-05). Nor has anyone ever won the U.S. Women's Open three straight times.

The dominant long-term performance in track and field history belongs to Edwin Moses, who won the 400-meter hurdles finals 107 consecutive times, 1977-1987, breaking the world record four times along the way. Way back in 1983, by the way, Moses came out strong against steroids in his sport, which didn't make him the most popular guy around.

Eight straight NBA championships for Russell and titles for Jordan in six consecutive full seasons mark them for the pantheon of all sports. On third thought, comparing them with Armstrong will not do. Everyone with a pure heart for basketball knows it's a team game. We've seen it again, over and over.

Somewhere between a team sport with heavy individual aspects, like pro basketball, and an entirely individual sport, like most track events, lies cycling. No event can be compared with the Tour de France, which isn't compressed into three hours, or even a week, or seven games in 10 days. It's 21 races in 23 days, covering 2,232.7 miles of mountainous French roadway.

We don't want to say Lance Armstrong is the greatest athlete ever — only that no other athlete has ever come along quite like him. What we've seen here is so singular that no possibility of comparison presents itself.

The comment often has been made, rightly, that American sports fans don't truly care about bicycle racing. But that's kind of the point. They watched Armstrong anyway. He made Americans who don't care about any sports care about his victory, because his victory goes well beyond sports.

What can be said about an athlete who seven straight times won the most grueling athletic competition in the world right after being diagnosed with cancer that started in his testicles, then metastasized to his lungs and brain, leaving him only a 3 percent chance to survive by some estimates? It doesn't matter what's said about it. What matters is what it says.

More than any other championship athlete to come along, Armstrong has deep meaning about life, about the will to live and prosper. Other champions have faced adversity, and you can read all about it. But it sounds almost comical to say Armstrong faced adversity.

At the moment he attained his greatest achievement, he also ended his athletic career. With that, we began to wonder what's next for this remarkable life.

The annual surveys of the French mountains are over, the 120-mile training sessions at altitude are over, the days of the dope squad banging on his door four times per year asking for his urine are over. But Lance Armstrong isn't over. Some say politics is next. He's only just begun.