What's the most uncomfortable situation in the sports world these days?
How about being introduced to Lance Armstrong?
He's had a tough year. Armstrong has lost all of his Tour de France titles, as well as, I assume, a few other championships that no one really cares about. He's lost his main sponsors, such as Nike. Armstrong has left his charity, Livestrong. Everyone he ever met, seemingly, during his racing career has testified that he was a cheater and a bully.
Oh, and on Monday, the New York City Marathon took his name out of its archives of finishers. Mary Wittenberg, the head of New York Road Runners and one of my favorite interviews in the running business, is always on top of things.
I've written before about the effects of a letdown. It came earlier this year in the context of the Sabres missing the playoffs when hopes were so high about a Stanley Cup the previous fall. We're seeing more of it in Buffalo with the Bills, who supposedly had upgraded their defense with some topnotch acquisitions. Defensive coordinator Dave Wannstadt is the current choice of local fans to be the scapegoat, although you have to think the players bear a good-sized share of the responsibility for all of this.
But Armstrong isn't a case of losing a few football games. This is a special level of disappointment. Ben Johnson let down all of Canada when his doping story broke hours after he won a gold medal in 1988. The Armstrong case centers on someone who had been admired for more than a decade, and now he's been firmly identified as a cheater and a liar.That's crushing.
Armstrong was such a good story. He was a promising cyclist who was moving up the ladder in the world rankings when he was diagnosed with cancer. Armstrong wasn't expected to live, let alone compete again. He beat the disease, came back better than ever, and starting winning Tour de France titles i 1999 ... 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.
How could you not root for a guy like that? And more to the point, how could you not consider donating to his cancer-fighting foundation? A lot of people did write those checks, and $500 million was raised by Livestrong. That's a half-billion dollars, which sounds even more impressive.
While all of this was going on, the sport of cycling continued to be hit with scandals involving drug use. It seemed that no one could ever reach the podium in Paris without the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs.
Except Lance. He kept passing the drug tests, one after another. Armstrong defiantly pointed that out whenever there was the hint of an issue with those tests, or his involvement with a doctor who was known to "help" cyclists with their needs at the nearest pharmacy. In hindsight, how easy must have it been for people to dodge positive test results? Better living through chemistry, indeed.
Eventually, the wall all came down, and in an unconventional fashion. Rather than rely on tests, the USADA instead turned to testimony from Armstrong's teammates. The wall of silence didn't just fall, it crashed into a zillion pieces. Today, those pieces were swept away and put into the dustbin of history. Lance Armstrong no longer exists, as least in the history books.
Cycling has worked hard to clean up its image in the last few years. It's tough to say if this episode is another step forward in that direction, or one last huge blow to the sport's reputation. Maybe both.
Armstrong hasn't commented on any of this, merely saying at one point a while ago that he chose not to fight the charges any more. His web site as of this writing still recognizes his Tour de France wins, and still says Armstrong "has become one of the most recognizable and admired people of this era." Well, at this point, it's half-right.
What do we do with such people? Some sort of public apology is the usual first step, no matter when it comes. I suppose at some point he'll write a book, explaining the whole sorry episode. Pete Rose did it after years of lying about his gambling on baseball. Remind me not to buy either of them.
In fact, Armstrong and Rose have plenty in common. As the Beatles sang, they are real nowhere men, sitting in their nowhere land, making all their nowhere plans for nobody.
Hope I don't bump into them.
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