The walls are closing in on Lance Armstrong. Former teammates are giving him up. Federal agent Jeff Novitzky, the man who bird-dogged Barry Bonds into a felony conviction, has pursued Armstrong straight into a grand jury convened to consider doping charges against the cycling icon.
Armstrong's publicity machine continues to defend the honor of the seven-time Tour de France winner with gusto. But it cannot extinguish the growing, smoking pile of evidence that suggests Armstrong is not the pristine transformational figure he claims to be.
Disclaimer: He has not been convicted of anything related to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. He may never be. But a Sports Illustrated investigative report published in January tied Armstrong (through "a source with knowledge") to three drug tests showing the kind of "abnormally high" testosterone-epitestosterone levels typically indicative of doping.
Last Sunday, "60 Minutes" aired an interview with Tyler Hamilton, Armstrong's former U.S. Postal Service teammate, in which Hamilton repeated the damning testimony he said he gave before the grand jury.
Hamilton is a recent convert to the fine art of soul cleansing. He used his grand jury subpoena as impetus to confess to his family his long doping history and to return the gold medal he won at the 2004 Summer Olympics. And to sit down for a national TV interview.
"(Armstrong) took what we all took," Hamilton told "60 Minutes." "There was EPO, there was testosterone and I did see a transfusion, a blood transfusion."
Those revelations certainly add heft to an interview that Floyd Landis, another former Armstrong teammate, gave Sports Illustrated last year, in which he detailed his personal knowledge of Armstrong's use of blood transfusions in 2003. And, of course, to the long-standing suspicions of the French media, which aren't as easily dismissed as jingoistic bombast as they used to be.
There's more, but you get the point.
We've seen these kinds of scenarios play out before. They rarely end happily and are never easy on the sensibilities. Marion Jones wielded self-righteousness as if it were Thor's hammer -- right up to the point where she stood crying on the courthouse steps after her conviction for lying to the feds about her use of performance enhancers.
Rafael Palmeiro made a finger-pointing spectacle of himself before Congress, then lamely blamed a tainted B12 shot after testing positive for steroids.
Jose Canseco confessed to his steroid use in the manner of a proud papa bragging on his son. Then he endeavored to turn a quick buck by writing two books in which he took as many people down with him as possible.
Those are all certifiably cringe-worthy developments. But if Armstrong were to be unequivocally outed as a drug cheat --and the gray area is dissipating as we speak -- it would be the most unsettling revelation of all. Not just for his vehemence, or for what many people perceive to be his arrogance, though those are certainly off-putting traits.
No, Armstrong's would be the worst outing of all because he enjoys and embraces the status of cancer survivor-as-communal touchstone. And because he has traded on that status as part of his defense against accusations of doping.
"I came out of a life-threatening disease," Armstrong, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996, told www.fora.tv at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2007. "I was on my deathbed. You think I'm going to come back into a sport and say, 'OK doctor, give me everything you got. I just want to go fast'? No way. I would never do that."
There's no denying Armstrong is a beacon of hope to cancer patients and their loved ones. There's no gray area there. His original diagnosis revealed his cancer to be advanced, having spread to his lungs and abdomen. He was told his cure rate was 60-85 percent.
Less than three years later he won the Tour de France -- his first of seven in a row. "I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles," he said, speaking to his detractors, after his seventh win. "There are no secrets. This is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it."
Through his foundation (and its ubiquitous yellow Livestrong bracelets), Armstrong has helped generate awareness, money and optimism for cancer patients. In doing so, he has entwined their plight with his own.
His inspirational cycling career validated his recovery from cancer and spawned the feel-good empire over which he presides. If it is proved that his career wasn't real, we are left with a painfully difficult question: