Lance Armstrong delusions fading fast

10/18/2012 12:00 AM

10/19/2012 4:41 PM

Eighty million yellow wristbands worn as symbols of hope now represent duplicity.

Seven yellow jerseys worn as mantles of a champion now represent fraud.

Who is Lance Armstrong? Tour de France winner, cancer survivor, heroic conqueror of mountains and adversity. But we always had suspicions, and finally we know the truth: Armstrong is a con man.

People who still think otherwise are deluding themselves the same way Armstrong deluded them.

There’s a saying among athletes that only dopes get caught for doping. And only dopes believe stories that are too good to be true. Armstrong doped and duped with equal precision.

“We were good actors,” Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton said. “We had two faces.”

Nike terminated Armstrong’s contract Wednesday, citing “insurmountable evidence” that Armstrong “misled” his sponsor for a decade. When Nike disowns one of its stars, particularly one whose Livestrong brand adorns 98 different products, you know he is poison. Nike stood by Tiger Woods when he was revealed to be a serial adulterer and Kobe Bryant when he was charged with sexual assault (charges later dropped). Nike re-signed Michael Vick after he served prison time for animal cruelty.

But Nike wants nothing more to do with a defiant cheater who often played the cancer card when deflecting criticism, evading questions and belittling doubters. He used to say any insinuation that he put toxins in his body again after undergoing cancer treatment was insensitive to what he and other patients went through.

Livestrong? Armstrong was living a lie.

In the Hall of Shame, Armstrong’s hubris ranks as more rancid than that of Barry Bonds, a mean, paranoid jerk. Armstrong can be a jerk, too, albeit a charismatic one. But the Armstrong myth was not just fostered by dishonesty but by the deep emotions of his fans. Bonds produced disgust. Armstrong broke hearts.

Minutes before Nike blacklisted Armstrong, he announced his resignation as chairman of the cancer awareness foundation he created in 1997 and built into a powerful charitable force. He said he didn’t want Livestrong to suffer “negative effects from the controversy surrounding my cycling career.”

Armstrong, 41, was stripped of his seven Tour titles and banned from competition for life by the United States Anti-Doping Agency after an investigation proved he was user, leader and enforcer of systematic, sophisticated doping practices on his U.S. Postal Service team, USADA said.

Armstrong decided not to challenge the findings or cross-examine his accusers in an arbitration hearing. USADA released a dossier last week with nearly 1,000 pages of sworn testimony from 26 witnesses, lab reports, emails and financial records.

The report pieced together the fragments that have eroded Armstrong’s granite reputation through the years. Armstrong used performance enhancers EPO, human growth hormone, steroids and oxygen-boosting blood transfusions. He pressured teammates to do the same or find another job. He stored drugs in his refrigerators in Nice, France, and Girona, Spain. He eluded testers by planting lookouts at team hotels, sneaking masking agent IVs into his room, being unclear about his whereabouts, hiding syringes and covering up a positive result. He made $1 million in payments to a creepy, nefarious physician known in cycling as “Dr. Blood.”

It’s Not About the Bike was the title of his autobiography, or should we call it a work of fiction? He described the struggle, determination and tenacity that enabled him to come back from life-threatening testicular cancer and win the most grueling event in sports a record seven consecutive times. It wasn’t about the bike; it was about Lance and his journey, a beacon for those reading the book during chemotherapy sessions or while lying in a hospital bed.

Turns out it wasn’t about the bike, or the purity of Armstrong’s will. It was about breaking the rules and relying on synthetic substances to beat everybody else.

The most damning revelations come from 11 of Armstrong’s teammates. He has depicted Floyd Landis and Hamilton as ax-grinders, but he cannot discredit the poignant confession and apology of George Hincapie, his trusted lieutenant through every mile.

When Dave Zabriskie succumbed and took his first injection, he went home and cried. He had pursued cycling as a healthy alternative to a troubled upbringing by his drug-addicted father and pledged never to take drugs. Other riders endured similar soul-searching but made the same choice as Armstrong.

The deceptions went drip, drip, drip like blood into veins, until they were absorbed and accepted as a necessary evil.

Of three common defenses of Armstrong the first asserts all pro riders were doping and a doped Armstrong was still the best on an “even playing field.” You could use the same rationalization to cheat on an exam or loot during a riot, but unethical behavior is still unethical. And Armstrong had more means (including funds from the postal service) than many teams to acquire drugs and hire doctors.

The second excuse, Armstrong’s refrain that he never tested positive, is bogus. He did at least once, and lied about a saddle sore that never existed. Positive tests aren’t necessary to prove doping. Bonds, Hincapie and Marion Jones are among those who never tested positive, either.

Third, Armstrong has helped raise $500 million through his foundation. He visits patients. He lobbies legislators. Give him a pass.

Armstrong is not a villain, and he has done more good for people than harm. But remember that Bernie Madoff gave millions to charity. A Ponzi schemer depends on suspension of disbelief by investors. Armstrong was not robbing people’s life savings. But he did spin a phony narrative. He adamantly denied that he used drugs. He bullied or sued whistle-blowers.

He raised many millions on the pretense that made him famous — overcoming cancer and applying his will to survive to the Tour. Except that those inspirational alpine climbs — a French cyclist once described his shock at seeing Armstrong speed past him as if he was descending rather than ascending — were fueled by a will to cheat.

A truly courageous Armstrong could have confessed, used his high profile to pull cycling from its overdosed depths and waged a global campaign against doping.

Instead, he punched his reeling sport in the gut. Instead, we observe the fall of another American hero. Wasn’t it last autumn that the Joe Paterno legend began to rot?

Perhaps Armstrong will persist in his denials, as the pitiful Pete Rose did, and end up a Las Vegas casino greeter. He’s banned from his goal of winning Hawaii’s Ironman Triathlon. Anheuser Busch no longer wants him for commercials. His brand is as useless as a flat tire.

The long con is over. Americans are always eager to forgive a repentant sinner. He should do what he chose not to do as an athlete: come clean.

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