I’ve wanted to believe Lance Armstrong for a long time. I know I’m not the only one.
Each time there was a new allegation claiming Lance had, in fact, benefited from various banned substances and procedures during his Tour de France reign, I held the company line: He had been tested over and over and over again through his career and never been caught. He operated under as intense a microscope as any athlete in modern times, with seemingly the entire European cycling community focused on nailing him for doing something wrong, and was never caught.
They were just jealous an American came and made their race look like a joke for seven years. They hated his arrogance. They couldn’t tolerate how every rider who seemed poised to challenge him ran into PED issues of their own. It became an obsession, a witch hunt, and they would stop at nothing to finally nail him.
I’ll admit my view has changed slowly in recent years. I always subscribed to the where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire theory. Despite believing his main defense, that he had never failed a drug test, I was not so blind to think there was no chance he hadn’t put something into his system over his career.
But still I believed in the man and the myth.
I didn’t watch <a href=”http://sports.yahoo.com/sc/news;_ylt=AoDVsdI_tXq6tZgzxwxgmas5nYcB?slug=ap-armstrong-doping”>Sunday’s “60 Minutes”</a> feature in which former teammate Tyler Hamilton became the latest insider to assert that Lance had never been the pure rider he claimed. I did read enough summaries and reactions to the piece, though, to feel like something was different this time. What, I’m not sure. The straw that broke the camel’s back perhaps. There comes a point where, to continue to believe in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, becomes impossible.
I’ve said many times that PEDs in sports don’t trouble me much. So if Lance indeed was cheating over his career, what does that mean for his legacy? I’ve read reactions this morning that mirror those that have been around for a decade. “Well, everyone else was doing it, so why should I hold it against him?” Or, “He’s done so much good with his fame and fortune that I don’t care what he put into his body.”
I can’t buy into either of those arguments. Lance was different. He was the good guy who appeared to be the target of a campaign to frame him. He constantly said not only did he not cheat, but that he didn’t need to cheat. He reminded us that he had been through cancer, on the verge of death, and he would never do something like that to a body he worked so hard to repair so he could race again. We bought into it because his story was so compelling, so inspiring, and so American.
I still hold out hope that Lance was clean, that this is about jealousy and people with power leaning on those close to him to change the stories they clung to for so many years. It’s a tiny hope, though, and I admit at my core I’m not sure anymore. If a positive test comes up, if Lance were to tearfully admit that he did put something into his system, or if the evidence against him simply becomes so compelling that I can’t believe otherwise, I won’t be surprised. I will feel a little guilty for believing him and buying into his myth. But I long ago shed the belief that most elite athletes are clean. I’ll chalk him up as another athlete of his time who couldn’t resist the temptation to give his natural abilities a boost. Like Pete Rose, Mark McGwire, and Barry Bonds, all future discussion of his career will be tempered with that knowledge.