Picking Splinters: Another Fallen Hero?

Lance Armstrong has been a piñata for some time now. Practically ever since he first experienced success in the Tour de France, French sports journal L’Equipe started swinging at him, claiming he was using performance enhancing drugs to dominate the tour.

But here in America, the shots rang false. What did they know, anyway? They had no hard proof. And whenever sports radio or TV referred to L’Equipe it was almost prefaced by the word “tabloid.” The implication being that the paper was more National Enquirer than New York Times.

And so, we ignored them. So too did we ignore Armstrong’s many peers from the cycling tour, like Floyd Landis and Greg LeMond, convincing ourselves that jealousy or financial motives prompted them to pipe up and blast the greatest American cyclist ever.

We could all do this because there was a simple question that none of the accusers could ever answer: Where was the proof? As Armstrong himself claimed repeatedly in statements declaring his innocence, he had never failed a drug test. Ever.

I don’t think we wanted to believe it possible either. Armstrong was a symbol of resiliency, returning to the sport – and dominating it — after beating cancer. His involvement in the “Livestrong” campaign probably sold millions of those little yellow bracelets that served as reminders to flaunt the best qualities of the human spirit, to fight hard and never quit.

But the accusations just keep on coming. Now they’ve arrived from a pair of Armstrong’s closest allies, as federal prosecutors investigate doping allegations involving Armstrong’s former U.S. Postal Service team.

As reported on “60 Minutes,” Tyler Hamilton, a former teammate of Armstrong’s, told the feds that he saw Armstrong use performance-enhancing substances. What’s more, Armstrong distributed the substances to Hamilton. George Hincapie, another Armstrong ally, likewise said Lance was doping.

At this point, in the face of mounting evidence, I think those little yellow bracelets have helped serve as big yellow blindfolds. We don’t want to believe these claims. We want to hold on to the myth of Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France winner, beating the odds along with the competition. We want to hold him up as a hero even as we’ve watched our sports heroes succumb to similar charges elsewhere.

But it seems all but inevitable now that federal prosecutors will clip Armstrong the same way they’re nailing home run king Barry Bonds and fireballer Roger Clemens. Just like they took down sprinter Marion Jones before them.

It seems almost unfair due to Armstrong’s image. Here’s a guy who worked with charities, who visited kids in cancer wards. This isn’t a guy that growled at the press in postgame locker room scrums. This is a guy who used his celebrity to help people. But if he was doping, and if he has been lying to us, what now?

If he has in fact been doping, Armstrong should come clean to us all as soon as possible. Will that hypothetical day be a sad one for many? Yes. But it would also be a valuable one as American sports fans continue to wonder how to deal with sports idols that are far from perfect.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since I was a kid pretending to be Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco and holding up athletes as though they were gods, it’s that the world is seldom black and white. Those that we often hold as white-knight paragons of virtue more likely fall somewhere in a muddled moral middle … just like the rest of us fallible souls.

To me, an admission from Armstrong wouldn’t so much tarnish his legacy as serve as a final teaching point to those who have idolized him. We all make mistakes. We all make bad decisions and not all of our motivations are pure. But when you know you erred, you need to face the music.

If Armstrong stands opposed to this investigation, if he has doped and ends up perjuring himself with his testimony, then he’ll merely become another fallen hero. But after believing in Armstrong for so long, I’d like to think he still has something more to offer.