Are there heroes?

Tuesday October 23, 2012

The seemingly inevitable destruction of cycling legend Lance Armstrong as an all-American hero now seems complete, as the International Cycling Union ratified the United States Anti-Doping Agency's sanctions against the American and stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles.

"Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling. Lance Armstrong deserves to be forgotten in cycling," UCI President Pat McQuaid declared at a news conference as he outlined how cycling, long battered by doping problems for decades, would have to start all over again. He added dramatically, "The UCI wishes to begin that journey on that path forward today by confirming that it will not appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and that it will recognize the sanction that USADA has imposed ... I was sickened by what I read in the USADA report."

Since Americans, never mind humans around the globe, are no longer permitted to have heroes who aren't eventually sullied in some manner by an incessant media and the public's hunger for daily decline-and-fall scenarios, it might be better for those in the public arena to flaunt their flaws right from the start. Some do, but not this fiercely proud Texan.

Lance Armstrong seemed an exception to most rules from the start, once his incredible seven victories in the Tour de France began in 1999, not long after he overcome advanced testicular cancer to win that grueling three-week race. He went on to win six more Tours, apparently becoming the greatest rider in the history of the sport. He also enraged competitors and fans from other countries with a longer history of excellence in cycling, particularly in France.

In fact, the French and others continually investigated this rider, alleging he was cheating by taking banned performance-enhancing drugs, but to no avail during his long career. He never once tested positive for a banned substance leading to a disqualification, while countless other riders suffered that fate, including most of his closest competitors.

And he denied cheating and vigorously defended himself in and out of court, and he still denies it. Now, of course, even his defenders have been able to view the extensive details of a USADA investigation that concluded he not only cheated but was a leader of that activity on his cycling teams. That still doesn't explain all the moralizing and self-righteous commentary being rained on him since the report was released.

While most who follow the sport even casually have long suspected Lance Armstrong of doing something in a sport rife with drugs, he was never disqualified from a race despite being watched and tested more closely than any other rider. This is not unlike former pitcher Roger Clemens, who, by the way, still retains his 354 Major League victories after an inconclusive and costly court case -- something Mr. Armstrong decided not to pursue, in part because of the tremendous cost in legal fees.

And anyone who has read the details of the USADA report should see immediately that, while many people accuse Mr. Armstrong of cheating, the key witnesses were either caught doping themselves and forced to offer testimony under threat of legal action or had been involved in disputes with Mr. Armstrong and might not be entirely reliable. In fact, most of the report stems from questionable sources, even if it indicates some level of guilt on his part.

Yes, Lance Armstrong probably took something at points during his career, but whatever he did went undetected during races, despite constant attempts to entrap him and investigate his actions. He should be given some benefit of the doubt, not treated like a pariah. And in a sport in which all the top riders actually were caught, except for him, he won seven Tours after overcoming cancer that had metastasized.

It should be much more difficult for all but self-righteous blowhards like Mr. McQuaid to demand that this man be "erased" from the history of cycling. He is not as great a hero, certainly not as great as heroes of old -- except that we now know for certain that no hero was ever without fault, rarely without glaring faults, even if it was largely unknown in their time.

There is no doubt, however, that Lance Armstrong was the most dominating cyclist of his era, or any era. He was never Jack Armstrong, the all-American boy, but we should never have expected that, of anyone.


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