I wanted to believe.
As a bicyclist, I considered Lance Armstrong one of my personal heroes. He was right up there with Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals, whom I revered as a kid.
I knew that throughout his celebrated career as a professional bicycle racer, Armstrong was dogged by allegations of doping.
Sour grapes, I figured, particularly when the French were doing the finger pointing. A Frenchman, after all, hadn’t won the Tour de France, bicycling’s premier event, since Bernard Hinault won his fifth Tour in 1985.
It was just beyond comprehension for some, I thought, that Armstrong, who nearly died in 1996 of testicular cancer, could go on to win the 1999 Tour de France, arguable the world’s most grueling sporting event, without the help of a needle. And then he did it six more times, the last time in 2005.
Winning the Tour de France seven consecutive years ranked as a sporting feat as difficult to match as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak for the New York Yankees in that magical pre-war season of 1941 or swimmer Michael Phelps’ total of 22 medals — 18 of them gold — in the summer Olympics in 2008 in Beijing and this year in London.
Armstrong, I reasoned, was a wondrous freak of nature, blessed with a body and psyche designed for bicycle racing — a wiry build, a prodigious lung capacity, a resting heart rate of 32 to 34 beats per minute, a remarkably high tolerance for pain, a ruthless competitive spirit and an indomitable will.
His successful struggle with cancer and his recovery, recounted in his 2000 autobiographic book It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, allowed him to rebuild his ravaged body into an unbeatable racing machine.
During my time on the editorial board at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, before retiring in 2008, I wrote a total of nine editorials around Tour de France time praising the feats of this remarkable Texas athlete and wishing him well in an international competition that had long been dominated by Europeans.
Every year, Armstrong’s quest to win the Tour de France became almost a fixture of the summer, like ballgames and barbecues, scorching heat and fireworks on the Fourth. And it was very pleasing to see American and Texas flags waved by crowds in the French countryside along the route of Le Tour.
It was an annual story that transcended sports and tugged at the emotions of us all. Even Americans who had only a passing interest in bicycle racing could root for a guy who came back from a devastating affliction to achieve dominance in one of the world’s toughest athletic endeavors. Every person who was ever stricken with cancer or had a loved one with the disease could fix on Armstrong as a symbol of hope.
My feelings about Armstrong became ambivalent a couple years ago when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began looking into doping among professional cyclists in the wake of allegations by former Armstrong teammate Floyd Landis. Landis, who was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France victory after a positive drug test, accused Armstrong of doping and blood transfusions.
But Landis had already been proven to be a liar. Why believe what he had to say about Armstrong?
Then along came a story in the Jan. 24, 2011, issue of Sports Illustrated that convincingly outlined the case against Armstrong, fueling speculation that federal indictments could be handed down at any time. But in February of this year, federal prosecutors dropped their investigation without charges.
Armstrong’s “vindication” was short-lived. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency took up the case and in June began legal proceedings against Armstrong. After bitter legal wrangling between the cyclist and the USADA, Armstrong threw in the towel on Thursday night, saying in a statement that he’s “finished with this nonsense,” but insisting that he’s innocent.
The USADA plans to impose a lifetime ban on Armstrong participating in any sports that abide by the code of the World Anti-Doping Agency and strip him of all his cycling victories from Aug. 1, 1998, including his seven Tour de France wins.
So this is the sad end of the career of Lance Armstrong.
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?
Some see his statement as an admission of guilt. Others argue that Armstrong was the subject of a witch hunt, that all professional cyclists use performance-enhancing drugs and that he was still the best among his peers. As one cycling friend put it on Facebook: Doping or not, Armstrong is still one badass dude on a bicycle.
As for me? I wonder if I was too naive in believing in Armstrong when I wrote those editorials for the Star-Telegram. I wonder if I should have exercised more skepticism, part of the unwritten creed of journalism.
I guess I wanted to believe. But I can’t anymore.