Armstrong uses image to dodge drug-cheat fury

May 23 2011 - 4:41pm

Because Lance Armstrong is not an obnoxious jerk, maybe because he comes off as a genuinely likeable human being who champions noble causes like cancer research, perhaps because his athletic stardom comes in a sport most of us are ambivalent to -- but probably mostly because the sporting public has simply grown numb to the uncomfortable truth that a whole lot of notable athletes are doping their way to fame and fortune--the news from a "60 Minutes" story that says the world's greatest cyclist is a sophisticated drug cheat has been greeted with a mixed bag of indifference, sympathy and cynicism.

Too bad, because that's not the reaction he deserves.

Armstrong has been using the old "Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?" defense for far too long and getting away with it. He clings to his story that he's never tested positive for any illegal performance enhancers. But by now we all know that passing most PED testing these days is more of an evaluation of your intelligence than your bloodstream.

There are too many ex-teammates pointing fingers at him, too many people who say they saw him stick needles in his body, too many people who claim they cheated right alongside Armstrong. The proper reaction to these "60 Minutes" accusations should be the same disgust that we've given to all the other liars, cheaters and bogus champions who have broken records, collected championships and blurred the validity of nearly every major athletic accomplishment over the past 20 years.

Armstrong was supposed to be the greatest man to ever ride a bicycle, a seven-time Tour de France winner who has been fighting accusations for more than a decade about how his greatness was achieved. And now according to a report that will be aired Sunday night on "60 Minutes," one of his best friends and former teammate George Hincapie has joined other members of Armstrong's inner circle in claiming the accusations are true.

This doesn't make him a bad person. It does make him an unethical jock who belongs in the same company with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and so many other notorious members of his generation who used the tip of a syringe to reach athletic excellence.

On Friday night his friends and supporters at his Livestrong Foundation understandably continued to support him for all the remarkable work he has done for cancer patients. "Show me one other person in his position who's raised millions for cancer, who's lit the way through darkness for so many people," Peter Kelley, a cancer survivor who's been in remission for 26 months told The Associated Press at an Aspen (Co.) fundraiser on Friday night. "He literally lit the way for me by his example. He made a difference in my recovery."

I couldn't agree more with the philanthropy that Armstrong has done and continues to do. It is indisputable that he has helped his foundation raise more than $400 million in funding for cancer patients. If that makes him more noble than insufferable jerks like Bonds or Clemens, that's nice and he deserves the fierce loyalty from his supporters. But it's time to separate the good that the man has done from the accusations that the cyclist continues to deny and the athletic frauds he is said to have perpetrated.

Yet that's only part of what troubles me about how people are reacting to Armstrong getting busted by his old teammates. The other troubling part of this story is how the performance enhancing drug debate in America is shifting from universal anger and disappointment in the cheaters themselves to questioning the motives and propriety of the prosecutors, investigators and journalists who are still interested in busting them.

Some critical voices now wonder what good is being done by investigating these cheaters with the full weight of the federal government behind the prosecutors and their aggressive drug cops. My only problem with the investigations is why the only targets we keep seeing out front as the stars of the show are the celebrity athletes. If the end game of these drug hunts does not round up the distributors and pharmaceutical geniuses who are actually selling and manufacturing the designer drugs, then it is not enough.

But I want the pursuit to continue. I am not indifferent to the crimes. I am not numbed by all the cheating. I have not reached the point where I no longer care if what I am seeing is real or just a juiced-up mirage.

What good does it do to continue tracking down athletes like Armstrong and Bonds?

Because there's no such thing as harmless cheating. In an interview with "60 Minutes" Frankie Andreu, another Armstrong teammate who admitted that he took banned substances, said: "Things were just getting faster and faster and sprinters were getting over the big mountains and winning, you know, climbing stages. There's 200 guys flying over these mountains and you can't even stay in the group. And it's just impossible to keep up. And it's like, 'What the hell's going on here?' "

Cheating doesn't only create bogus champions and counterfeit records. It also creates an entire culture of drug cheats just trying to stay even. And if Armstrong had a part in perpetuating that culture, there's nothing admirable about that.

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