Lance Armstrong has stepped off the pedals he once pushed with his incomparable combination of bounce and fury. He has slumped by the side of an alpine road.
Armstrong, who impressed us with his will to live and to win, has done something that his every gene, muscle and brain cell rebelled against: He has surrendered.
Armstrong, so competitive on the bike that he would chase down rivals for any petty slight and leave them in his dust, will no longer fight the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation of his career.
He will be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, and his race results since Aug. 1, 1998, will be erased by USADA. Because he is declared a drug cheat, Armstrong’s epic climbs up 8,000-foot hors categorie peaks and glorious rides bisecting sunflower fields are now, officially, illusions. The yellow jersey? A disguise.
By deciding not to proceed with arbitration, Armstrong avoids the ignominy of testimony from witnesses and up to 10 former teammates who were set to describe the systematic use of blood transfusions, EPO, testosterone, human growth hormone and masking agents by Armstrong and his team. It would have been messy, like a hotel room strewn with used syringes. The Lance myth would have tumbled like cyclists in a domino-effect crash.
He gives up, but his denials remain intact. He is weary of “this nonsense,” “witch hunt,” “vendetta,” “kangaroo court.” Finished filing lawsuits and intimidating past associates like a mafia boss, he will devote his time to family and his cancer research foundation.
He loses, but he wins. It’s the biggest compromise of his life.
Armstrong clung to his defense the way a shipwreck victim clings to a slowly sinking spar: He never tested positive. Over the course of 560 samplings of his bodily fluids, he never came up dirty.
It’s a meaningless record. Marion Jones never tested positive. Nor did she need to dope to win. Same goes for Barry Bonds.
Who should be awarded Armstrong’s seven titles? Most of the guys who finished behind him, including Jan Ullrich, were also implicated in drug scandals. The sport of cycling is in another bind. When Alberto Contador’s vacated title was given to runner-up Andy Schleck, Schleck didn’t want it. Perhaps the Armstrong Era is best delineated by the asterisks that are cluttering the record books of other sports.
His supporters say he was the best, fittest doped rider in a doped sport, and the doping dates back to many great champions. All together now: It’s not cheating if everyone else is doing it.
The even-playing-field argument is not only cynical but flawed.
What is even about the sophisticated doping arsenal of a multimillionaire like Armstrong, who can put a battalion of doctors, scientists and lawyers on his payroll, compared to the resources of a regular rider?
There are those who argue doping isn’t bad if athletes are willing to do it.
Extrapolate, and we’ll have athletes amputating legs or arms to take advantage of advances in prosthetic design.
Doping also improves performance for mediocre athletes to a greater degree than for superior athletes. Doping kills, too, when blood with the consistency of maple syrup clogs veins.
Allow doping and what is the point of athletic competition? That’s what Greg LeMond asked when he left cycling.
Armstrong was a charismatic jerk in the same way that Pete Rose was an engaging liar. Armstrong is one of those people you try to like, but he doesn’t care if you do. He’s got that bullet-proof ego. Raised by a single mom, deserted by his father, driven by anger as much as adrenaline.
Armstrong, 40, should neither be worshipped nor crucified.
He beat testicular cancer and a dire prognosis, helped raise $500 million in the anti-cancer crusade, pumped up awareness with his Livestrong bracelets and delivers hope in countless visits, calls and emails to patients and survivors.
He never was a saintly Superman.
And he’s not a martyr now.
Joe Paterno didn’t live up to his image. Nor did Tiger Woods. Fans keep yearning for heroes but keep looking in the wrong places.
Two memories linger: Armstrong climbing Alpe d’Huez in 2004, through the tunnel of crazed spectators, around the hairpin turns, up, up, up a road so steep your quads turned to concrete just walking it and ski lift chairs dangled above. The suffering, he said, made him feel alive.
And Armstrong standing atop the podium on the Champs-Elysees in July 2005, his lean body framed by the Arc de Triomphe, his children hugging their father’s legs, his jersey turned gold by the late afternoon light.
He had won his seventh consecutive Tour.
But it wasn’t enough to have beaten opponents, conquered mountains, dominated his sport.
To Armstrong, victory signified repudiation of his doubters and accusers.
Take that, he was saying, practically throwing champagne in the face of those unwilling to ignore the steadily mounting accounts against him. His bitterness was telling.
It was beautiful to suspend disbelief during the 2,000 miles of the Tour. Armstrong’s feats made for magnificent allegory.
But get past the scenery and drama and his most lasting legacy in the sports realm is distrust.
Because of Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis and Ben Johnson and Michelle Smith and Mark McGwire and too many other con artists, we cannot watch sports with the same joy and awe that we used to know.
The cheaters have cheated us.