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Taylor: Armstrong no longer a hero

I should be writing about football right now. About the third road game I’ve ever been to. About being allowed onto the Notre Dame field before kickoff. About another overtime thriller I witnessed firsthand and the second painful defeat–the Fiesta Bowl definitely hurt. About the weather, the miserable Indiana rain that made me long for sunny Palo Alto.
But throughout my whole weekend jaunt to America’s Second City, something else was nagging at my peace of mind.
Last week the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) published its long-awaited report justifying why it has been vehemently pursuing cycling legend Lance Armstrong for years. I say “legend” because I’m no longer sure that I can call him a hero, but it still doesn’t feel quite right to say “cheat.”
The only real facts that I feel I can be absolutely sure of anymore are that Armstrong recovered from life-threatening testicular cancer to become the most dominant force in the cycling world for more than seven years. Like him or loathe him–in spite of his charitable work he never really came across as a humble figure–his story was one of the most inspiring and incredible in the annals of sporting history.
According to the USADA, though, that was exactly the problem: It just was too unbelievable. Read just a little of its damning report and Armstrong goes from superhero to supervillain. Not only did he cheat, he was supposedly one of the central figures in perhaps the greatest conspiracy in all of sports. It is reported that he could be charged with perjury for lying under oath about taking drugs, but really if he did what he is accused of, he could perhaps be charged with much more serious crimes. The USADA claims that he enforced a similar doping routine on fellow teammates, something that could have risked their health and even in rare cases have killed them.
Armstrong, meanwhile, denies the charges–as he almost certainly would, innocent or guilty–though has declined to continue fighting them in court. That could be seen as an admission of guilt, but either way it lacks a concrete finality that would bring this episode to a close. His lawyers, too, have now called for the USADA’s witnesses to undergo lie detector tests, so an end to this sorry story doesn’t seem to be in sight.
Where Armstrong’s fairytale seemed unbelievable to us mere mortals, we now have a story every bit as outlandish. It’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever know the truth with enough certainty to know it really is the truth.
But it’s more than that. Deep down there is some part of me that doesn’t want this to be the truth, that wants at least one of those seven Tour de France titles to have been earned fair and square.
We need heroes, and Armstrong was that. Just spot the number of people still wearing the yellow Livestrong wristband of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports people affected by cancer.
But even its color now seems distasteful. Cheat or not, he could be respected for setting up an organization that has done so much good–but yellow? It is the color of the jersey worn by the lead rider of the Tour de France; the color that Armstrong wore disingenuously for seven straight years.
Who in cycling can we now look up to? Who can we even have faith in? Among Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service (USPS) teammates are famous names like Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton and George Hincapie. All are now self-confessed cheats. Among the Tour de France winners in the post-Armstrong era are riders who were subsequently disqualified, including Landis and Alberto Contador.
Even those who refused to take part in this doping conspiracy and found themselves edged out of the sport as a result are no heroes. Their silence until recently can be viewed as tacit support of the USPS regime because they uniquely had the power to stop this long ago.
If it hadn’t been for those pesky kids at the USADA, and Armstrong and his cohorts had gotten away with this, wouldn’t the world be a better place? Sure, every ounce of my moral fiber screams out for justice and fairness, but what we don’t know can’t hurt us. In that parallel universe the fairytale is still alive; millions are still inspired by what man can apparently achieve rather than hollowed out by the knowledge of his deception.
Growing up is a bitter process. One by one every childhood legend turns out to be a fake: the tooth fairy, Santa Claus and now Armstrong.

From his vantage point in the stands, Tom Taylor had the perfect angle on the final play from Notre Dame. He has thus far refused to reveal what really happened, but you can email him at tom.taylor@stanford.edu to make him give up the truth or follow him on Twitter @DailyTomTaylor.

  • Robert D.

    He is a cheat, pure and simple. It’s not just the doping, which many athletes have done. It’s the vindictiveness with which he pursued the innocent truth-tellers. It’s the thuggery of threatening to destroy his competitors, teammates and their wives if they ever chose to cross him. It’s the way he slandered cyclists as ‘absolute liars’ when they suggested doping was taking place in the sport. I hope all those that Armstrong took on in such cowardly fashion come back with their own legal teams and take this skunk to the cleaners. As for Livestrong, well, there are plenty of other charities out there. Just as there are plenty of clothing companies not named Nike.