Cycling legend Lance Armstrong made a decision this week not to contest the United States Anti-Doping Agencies charges that he employed blood doping to give him an unfair competitive advantage over the course of his racing career. It is the equivalent of a plea of nolo contendre in a criminal trial. He is walking away from the ability to contest the charges and clear his name. The USADA is almost certainly going to ban him from competitive cycling for life and strip him of the seven Tour de France victories he won. This will mean that from the 1996 Tour tile won by Bjarne Riis of Denmark, who admitted several years ago to his own extensive doping, through the 2010 race result forgeited by Spain's Alberto Contador over his positive test for clembuteral, cycling has experienced a 15 year span in which all but one champion (Spain's Carlos Sastre in 2008) has been formally discredited in some way, even if some of the championships remain in place.
Cycling has experienced the same trauma that afflicted Major League Baseball in which all results end up in question. The sport is tarnished by the "cheating" stigma. Why would Lance Armstrong, who has been combative and zealous over the years in challenging any accusations of unfair play simply walk away without a fight? His statement in doing so was strident and he portrayed himself as a victim of a vendetta from USADA CEO Travis Taggart. But Armstrong had the resources to hire a first-rate legal team and spokesman Mark Fabiani. He was one of the few athletes with the power to take on a regulatory battle. His legal team filed a lawsuit in federal court that was rejected by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks because of the length and side issues it raised. When his attorneys resubmitted the suit it was dismissed. And he has chosen not to continue the battle in arbitration.
Lance Armstrong has been as powerful a role model as sports has ever seen. He fought a long battle with testicular cancer, recovered, and went on to set records for his performance in the equivalent of the Superbowl for the sport -- The Tour de France. He used his high-profile to raise massive amounts of money and profile to fight cancer through his Livestrong Foundation. The wristbands that symbolized the mission are de riguer accessories throughout the nation. It has been reported that he may have raised over 500 million dollars for cancer research. He was able to entice many corporations to co-partner with his efforts. He has done more to raise cancer awareness single-handedly than anyone. For him to be discredited has a harmful effect on the efforts to find a cure for this life-threatening disease.
Perhaps Lance Armstrong was tired of the endless battling to defend himself against doping allegations. He may have considered that the USADA process was so one-sided and vindictive that a continuing effort was pointless. He may have felt that he was the target of a witch hunt. He may have anticipated former teammate Tyler Hamilton's new book in which Hamilton is expected to repeat charges he has made publicly concerning the purported cheating by Armstrong. Whatever his motivation, this is a disastrous result for cycling and its fans.
Lance Armstrong was a hero to millions. He was an athlete that a parent could proudly have his children emulate. His was a story of courage, determination and so many admirable values. How do parents explain this scenario to the millions of kids who looked up to him? We will never know whether he found illegal ways to enhance his performance. Nothing he did on the course undermines the immense amount of good he has done for cancer research. But above all, Lance Armstrong has been a fighter. It should not have ended this way.
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