Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Lance Armstrong exits with act of defiance

The star bicyclist, stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, opted not to take his last chance.

Banned from cycling for life.

Who would have ever dreamed we'd hear that phrase in connection with the most accomplished cyclist — and one of the most celebrated American athletes — in history?

But that's what everyone started talking about late Thursday night and all day Friday. Lance Armstrong dropped his fight against doping charges by declining to enter the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's arbitration process. The organization is stripping him of his seven Tour de France titles.

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

"I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999," he said. "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."

USADA took that as an admission of guilt.

Banned from cycling for life.

Did they have it on your office television? I know they did in mine, but that probably makes sense given that I work in the sports department of a daily newspaper. Every morning during Lance's historic run, guys on bikes were on our TV. If you'd told me when I was studying to become a journalist that I'd spend mornings watching guys on bikes pedal up mountains, I would have instantly changed my major to Latin. Guys on bikes are not for me.

Yet there we were. And the crazy thing was, we had all kinds of company. Folks from the news department would drop by, or advertising, and they'd all say the same thing: "How's Lance doing?"

This does not happen any other time outside of the NCAA basketball tournament. This sure as hell doesn't happen during some cycling race halfway across the world.

But it did. And we cheered the valiant Texan who'd beaten the odds, spit in the face of cancer. And now many of us are conflicted: What, exactly, were we cheering?

There seem to be three schools of thought — and only three — when it comes to Lance:

1. Lance cheated, and he's been lying about it ever since, and every day that he denies it is another day he looks more foolish.

2. Whether Lance cheated or not is completely irrelevant. All the good that he did, the inspiration he provided, the money he raised for cancer research — that's what Lance is all about, titles or no titles.

3. Lance is innocent. He's been the target of a witch hunt. He's passed every drug test. He's a conquering hero who has become a victim of jealously. Long live Lance, the seven-time champ.

With all due respect, I don't know how anybody can believe No. 3 anymore. It just doesn't seem possible. Cycling is the dirtiest sport in the world. Everybody cheats. And yet Lance was the one guy who didn't — AND he beat all the cheaters? Seven times?

Lance tried to frame Thursday's announcement as one final act of defiance. To me, it's another serious blow to his legacy. Entering the arbitration process would have been Lance's final opportunity to clear his name with USADA. In other words, the end was in sight, regardless of the outcome. He chose not to seize the final opportunity, opting instead to say the same thing he's been saying all this time: I'm innocent. I'm Lance, remember? Believe me.

Can't do it. Blame Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Landis, Jones and the dozens of others who have stripped us of naivete. Sorry kids. Superman had help.

To me, there was only one way Lance could have handled this that would have been ideal. He could have merged the first two schools of thought with one statement: "I did it. Everybody did it. To keep up with the cheaters, I had to cheat myself. I may not be proud of that now, but I am extremely proud of what my notoriety allowed me to do as far as providing inspiration to cancer victims and what our foundation has done to help those who really need it. Thank you."

Instead, he goes quietly into the darkness, refusing to put up one last fight, cursing the accusers. Exiled from the sport he somehow got us all to watch.

Banned from cycling for life.

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