Commentary: Armstrong's world comes crashing down

08/26/2012 12:00 AM

08/26/2012 10:50 AM

DENVER – Lance Armstrong's life has rarely been routine. Like Michael Jordan, Barry Bonds and Tiger Woods in their sports, Armstrong catapulted cycling to a new mountaintop with talent, charisma and bravado.

Sports fans who don't know the Tour de France from a tour of duty watched cycling to see what Armstrong was going to do next on some steep, twisting European mountain road. Or they watched him because they had cancer or knew someone who had or died from it.

Athletes with such impact are often canonized. But few sporting icons who have done so much right and apparently now so much wrong have done so more convincingly than Armstrong.

From an early age, Armstrong's moxie has been staggering.

As a skilled amateur, Armstrong escorted his mother to award presentations after dominating races. At one race, when officials said post-race podiums were for cyclists only, Armstrong refused to attend. Organizers had no choice – they acquiesced.

But no one in sports – from Pete Rose to Marion Jones to Bonds – has been accused of pulverizing his or her sport so severely.

Nearly 15 years after accusations first swirled following his return from cancer and first Tour de France victory, Armstrong on Thursday announced he'd had enough. He wouldn't contest the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's charges of doping and conspiracy despite a career-long denial of wrongdoing.

When I first interviewed Armstrong in the late 1980s, he was easy to like – cycling's version of former NBA star Charles Barkley. Armstrong always had something to say. He often was and still is cordial and candid. He's smart and funny, and he can control a news conference instantaneously. Catch him in a foul mood, however, and it's another story.

With his fame and globally expanding cancer foundation, Armstrong also became a master of manipulation and intimidation – and a public relations genius. He embraced Twitter early and still has more than 3.5 million followers.

When he competed a few years ago in the Tour of Italy in his second comeback, Armstrong had short videos made inside his team motor home before each stage. He had teammates and competitors talk about the day ahead or their families or hobbies. It was new and refreshing and showed cyclists as humans, not shaven-legged gladiators on two wheels.

But when a videographer shot and posted arguably the greatest footage in Armstrong's career during the Tour of California a few years ago, the video was quickly removed. The video showed Armstrong after he had crashed on a cattle guard; he was hurt and bloody but pedaling again.

Armstrong was unsure what to do. It was raw and showed his vulnerability. He was like the rest of us, if only for a few minutes. It may have been the best video in cycling history.

But Armstrong's powerful PR machine reportedly had the video deleted.

Like any champion, Armstrong was emphatically cheered when he won easily. But when he was spit on or booed as a doper in the Alps, he won more convincingly.

When he won his last Tour de France title in 2005, Armstrong addressed the drug accusations that already had circulated for nearly a decade: "For the people who don't believe in cycling, the cynics, the skeptics, I feel sorry for you," he said from the final podium on the Champs Elysees in Paris. "You need to believe in these riders. I'm sorry you can't dream big, and I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles."

All of which circles back to Armstrong's unexpected announcement.

Armstrong's decision is hard to decipher. For all of the strenuous mountains he's overcome on and off his bike, why didn't the rider challenge USADA's accusations – the biggest obstacle of his cycling career? He never backed way from any other mountain.

It's also hard to understand why cycling has allowed the agency to change the history of the sport without offering proof. It's embarrassing for USA Cycling, the national governing body of the sport, to avoid the subject of Armstrong and several of his former teammates also under the USADA microscope with repeated comments of "No comment." When USA Cycling wants to promote the accomplishments of its athletes, it has plenty to say.

It's also disappointing that several cyclists I spoke with at the USA Pro Challenge, which ends today in Denver, wouldn't comment on Armstrong. These athletes always have been accommodating when asked about their accomplishments with what reporters call "softball questions."

In his post-cancer bestseller, "It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life," published in 2000, Armstrong wrote: "Quite simply, I believed I had a responsibility to be a good person, and that meant fair, honest, hardworking and honorable. If I did that, if I was good to my family, true to my friends, if I gave back to my community or to some cause, if I wasn't a liar, a cheat, or a thief, then I believed that should be enough."

It's hard to understand why Armstrong would write those words knowing he was lying. It's hard to understand why Armstrong, given a second chance after beating cancer, would alter his body again.

And it's hard to comprehend that perhaps the last story I write about Armstrong after more than 20 years of interviewing, observing and commenting on one of history's most intriguing and perplexing athletes is the story of a martyr or a fraud.

Neither is becoming of the athlete or the sport.


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