One of the most memorable lines in sports emerged from a scandal involving the Chicago White Sox. Eight White Sox players, including leftfielder “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, were banned for life from major league baseball for allegedly conspiring with gamblers to fix the 1919 World Series in favor of their opponent, the Cincinnati Reds.
That line has banged around in my head during the past couple years as legendary cyclist Lance Armstrong has been dogged by increasingly credible allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs en route to a record seven consecutive victories in the Tour de France, from 1999 to 2005.
Armstrong’s announcement on Wednesday that he is retiring — for the second time — from professional bicycle racing again stirred conflicting emotions.
Is he one of the most remarkable athletes who ever lived — one who first defeated testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs and then went on to “own” perhaps the world’s most grueling sporting event for seven straight years? Or is he a fraud whose extraordinary powers were enhanced by some substance injected by a needle?
Say it ain’t so, Lance!
Winning the Tour de France seven consecutive times ranked as a sporting feat as difficult to match as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in that magical season of 1941 or swimmer Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It seemed incomprehensible to ordinary human beings that Armstrong, whose cancer nearly killed him in 1996, could win the Tour even once, much less seven times.
To be fair, Armstrong has been saying “it ain’t so” ever since suspicions about the use of performance-enhancing drugs started swirling around in 1999, after his first Tour de France victory.
How could someone who nearly died of cancer win Le Tour, some wondered, if he didn’t have some help from a needle?
But Armstrong tested clean after every Tour de France and has repeatedly and vehemently denied ever using performance-enhancing drugs.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration launched an investigation into professional cycling last year following accusations against Armstrong, including those by Floyd Landis, who won the 2006 Tour de France but was stripped of his title after testing positive for drug use. A federal grand jury in Los Angeles has been hearing the case.
Sports Illustrated convincingly outlined the case against Armstrong in its Jan. 24 issue, fueling speculation that indictments could be handed down at any time. But The Associated Press reported Feb. 12, citing lawyers familiar with the case, that “a decision on whether to indict” Armstrong “is not imminent and the federal investigation has encountered serious hurdles.” One problem, apparently, has been lack of proof of any wrongdoing.
Armstrong’s comeback from a devastating disease to achieve dominance in one of the world’s toughest athletic endeavors is a story that has transcended sports and tugged at the emotions of us all. It would be very sad, indeed, if one day he emerges from a Los Angeles courthouse after being indicted and is confronted by a youthful admirer who says: “Say it ain’t so, Lance.”