Lance Armstrong Can Still Be a Hero, but 'Witch Hunt' Destroys Cycling Legacy

Adam HirshfieldFeatured ColumnistAugust 24, 2012

PAU, FRANCE - JULY 22: Lance Armstrong with team RadioShack heads to the start of stage 17 of the Tour de France on July 22, 2010 in Pau, France. Luxembourg's Andy Schleck won the stage while Spaniard Alberto Contador kept the race leaders yellow jersey. The last stage in the Pyrenees, the 174km route from Pau to Col du Tourmalet includes some of the most difficult climbs of the Tour. The iconic bicycle race will include a total of 20 stages and will cover 3,642km before concluding in Paris on July 25.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There comes a point in every man's life when he has to say, "Enough is enough." For me, that time is now.

With that line, part of a larger message posted on his website on Thursday, seven-time Tour de France winner and sporting icon Lance Armstrong gave up his fight against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), saying:

I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999. … The toll this has taken on my family, and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today—finished with this nonsense.

He's called the repeated and persistent attempts to prove him guilty of doping by USADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, French newspaper L’Equipe and even ex-teammates like Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton and others a "witch hunt." It’d be hard to disagree.

But by agreeing to end his fight on Thursday, effectively pleading “no contest” to the widespread charges, Armstrong won’t just lose his seven Tour titles. In the eyes of both his longtime fans and his longtime accusers, he'll have proven this "witch hunt" to be just and appropriate, not the “nonsense” he suggests.

Yes, the constant need to defend yourself from shameful and largely unfounded allegations—charges that threaten to burst the bubble of heartfelt support built up by a brazen and miraculous return to cycling from testicular cancer—must weigh heavily on one's mind and heart.

But if there's no truth to these myriad accusations; if they threatened the very mystique and perception you'd created over the years with hard work and God-given talent; if they flew completely in the face of the "Livestrong" mentality, wouldn't you continue to fight against them with all your might?

I would.

I've covered Armstrong a fair amount since his last few Tour victories, so I've paid close attention to Armstrong's remarkable successes—both on the bike and off it—and his struggles to maintain innocence in the wake of testimony to the contrary. The accusations are all over the place.

So how is it that Armstrong continues to suggest he's never doped?

Well, he declares that he's been subjected to hundreds of doping tests, all of which he's "passed with flying colors." You can’t argue with science, right?

He says that he's always “played by the rules that were put in place by the UCI [International Cycling Union], WADA and USADA when [he] raced." This is also seemingly true.

If I'm reading between the lines, this says to me basically what Victor Conte and many of the BALCO athletes of the same period have stated in their defense: We did something we weren't supposed to do that may go against the spirit of the rules, but we were never caught. We were always a step ahead of the testers.

In sports, there are telling maxims like "It's not cheating if you don't get caught" or "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin' hard enough." In football, holding on the offensive line occurs regularly, even though a flag isn’t always thrown. NASCAR drivers may occasionally speed down pit road or have too much downforce on their car. Soccer players may dive to earn a call from a referee.

But is it cheating if they're not caught?

Is taking performance-enhancing drugs in a similar gray area, especially if they don't trigger some sort of immediate red flag among the caretakers of the sport?

This is obviously a larger question that Armstrong and his legacy will continue to fight for perpetuity. And each fan will have to make up his or her mind: Is our hero guilty or not?

I remember the cancer patients who said he was an inspiration, who said the strength shown by Armstrong in his comeback helped them through a particularly tough chemo treatment or helped them see not doom, but hope on the road ahead.

Having seen how inspirational Armstrong is to survivors and sports fans alike, I understand how many followers of his quest will be devastated by his decision to give up, to agree to be stripped of his Tour de France titles, or to all but admit that there were shenanigans that went on in his past that he doesn't want to defend himself against any longer. It's like he's been lying to us all these years. I get that.

But I'd imagine that there are plenty, also, who will continue to defend Armstrong with all their might. They will rightfully point to the fact that through his organization, Armstrong has helped raise millions of dollars for cancer research. They'll hold on to that "Livestrong" fairy tale, look to it for inspiration and use it for their own benefit in their own attempts to fight cancer or, more simply, to lose weight or get in shape.

I'm fine with that.

But let's be straight on this: Armstrong admitted defeat on Thursday. He admitted he did something wrong.

So despite all the good he's done in the fight against cancer, those tales of his cycling success will forever go down in sports lore as little more than that—a fairy tale.