Armstrong shines in summer of stars

Posted: Sunday, July 28, 2002

Lance Armstrong. Tiger Woods. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Serena and Venus Williams.

Their biggest rivals are in the record books, in other summers of blockbuster performances, other golden ages of sport.

Armstrong will roll down the Champs Elysees with a yellow jersey on Sunday, his fourth straight Tour de France triumph a virtual certainty. Who's left to catch in this 99-year-old race? Only Spain's Miguel Indurain, winner of five straight from 1991-95.

''It's not my last Tour de France,'' the Texan says.

One wild rain-soaked round in the British Open wrecked Woods' single-season Grand Slam quest but didn't dent his overall dominance of golf. He's won seven out of the last 12 majors, eight overall. His eyes aren't on Ernie Els or Phil Mickelson. They're on Jack Nicklaus' 18 majors.

O'Neal and Bryant led the Los Angeles Lakers to a sweep of the New Jersey Nets and a third straight NBA title in June. If that didn't quite put these Lakers on a par with Michael Jordan's Bulls or the ''Showtime'' Lakers of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson era, a fourth straight title surely would.

The Williams sisters might just be starting a long run at the top of women's tennis. The most dominant siblings in sports history, they've played each other in three of the past four Grand Slam finals. Venus won the U.S. Open last fall, Serena took the French and Wimbledon titles this year to grab the No. 1 spot. The challenge now is keep it up against each other and find their place among or ahead of the all-time greats in the game.

A golden age in sports is a shifting concept rather than a fixed time. Back in the 1920s, the giants were Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, Bobby Jones and Bill Tilden. Today's athletes are no less remarkable, no less fascinating.

Yet, a decade ago, even amid the soaring profits and popularity that sports enjoyed then, there were warnings of doom.

''I think spectator sports are going away,'' John Naisbitt, the futurist and author of two ''Megatrends'' best sellers, predicted. ''Sports are being replaced by the fine arts as the dominant leisure activity of the society.''


But Naisbitt wasn't alone in his pessimism. There were worries among agents, TV advertising executives, team auditors, sports marketers and corporate sponsors that spectator sports would face serious challenges over the next decade. Among the chief concerns:

-- Apathy caused by cultural or economic changes would lead to a big turnoff of sports.

-- Pay-per-view would destroy the fan base.

-- Soaring salaries and lower TV ratings, tugging sports in opposite directions, would leave the pro leagues stretched thin and reduce the values of franchises.

-- Golf, tennis and other individual sports would suffer as sponsors backed out.

Instead, even after the 1994 baseball strike and with the prospect of another looming, the opposite is true. Sports are bigger than ever and there are more good athletes than ever. Woods energized golf, the Williams sisters tennis, O'Neal and Bryant the NBA. Barry Bonds' 73 homers last year broke the seemingly untouchable record of 70 set by Mark McGwire only three years earlier.

And most amazing of all has been Armstrong.

From the margins of popular sports, the 30-year-old Armstrong has captured the public's admiration and affection as few athletes ever have. He is the personification of hope, a cancer survivor who overcame operations and chemotherapy, wrote about them frankly in a best-selling autobiography, and pushed himself relentlessly to dominate one of the world's most grueling events.

The Tour de France is a perilous, three-week struggle over more than 2,000 miles. It's filled with hairpin turns, lung-searing climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees, rain and wind, and slick roads with more than a hundred riders jostling for position. Crashes, skids and flat tires can end a dream at any moment.

Armstrong took nothing for granted, but let nothing get in his way. The U.S. Postal Service, which sponsors him, couldn't have had a better representative. No matter the weather or the circumstances, he delivered.

When he crashed about a mile before the finish in the seventh of the 20 stages, his handlebars getting tangled with another USPS team member, Armstrong slipped from third to eighth, 34 seconds out of the lead.

He shrugged it off.

''I'm just going to have to ride faster in the time trial,'' Armstrong said.

And so he did.

When the sun beat down on the riders during the 13th stage from the foot of the Pyrenees to Beziers, near the Mediterranean, Armstrong kept his cool -- not pushing himself too hard, but not letting his closest pursuers for the title gain any time on him.

When he finished the 18th stage Friday with a 5-minute, 6-second lead -- insurmountable, barring injury or illness -- he wore a confident smile.

''I sleep pretty good at night with the lead that we have,'' Armstrong said.

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