Hard to keep Lance Armstrong on hero pedestal

Lance Armstrong, of Austin, Texas, carries the United Lance Armstrong, of Austin, Texas, carries the United States flag during a victory parade on the Champs Elysees avenue in Paris, after winning his seventh straight Tour de France cycling race. (July 24, 2005) Photo Credit: AP

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John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and ...

F. Scott Fitzgerald's take was, "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy." With Lance Armstrong, though, it's been more complicated than that.

The U.S. Anti-Doping agency's release Wednesday of voluminous evidence documenting Armstrong's role at the center of "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program sport has ever seen" is definitive enough: Armstrong cheated his way to a record seven Tour de France cycling victories, to fame and great riches.

USADA made public more than a 1,000 pages of sworn testimony from 26 people -- 11 of them former Armstrong teammates, including Armstrong's longtime first lieutenant George Hincapie. Once and for all, that should muffle Armstrong's years of dismissing reports of his drug use as "witch hunts" and "slimy journalism."

Even in raising a white flag to USADA in August, ending his legal fight against the agency's charges, Armstrong continued to rage at the "biased, one-sided and untested version of events," continuing an attempt to dupe the world -- an anti-hero approach if there ever was one.

Still, the "hero" tag is -- and will be -- widely applied by sincere millions to Armstrong, a cancer survivor whose foundation has raised enormous sums for research of the disease.

A friend in journalism, Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated, eloquently wrote in June 2011 of how his own confrontation with cancer allowed him to separate any judgment of Armstrong's dubious cycling practices from Armstrong's unprecedented impact on cancer awareness and fund-raising. (Farber, a sportswriting hero, is fine now.)

A Washington Post poll of 16,000 participants, compiled after USADA moved this summer to strip Armstrong of his Tour titles, found that 57 percent refused to accept Armstrong had doped. U.S. Open tennis pros, with Armstrong's apparent fall from grace in the news during this year's tournament, overwhelmingly argued that Armstrong's cancer work -- and cycling feats, regardless of performance-enhancing drugs -- would be his enduring legacy.

Yet it remains a heavy lift to let Armstrong completely off the hook for those years of subterfuge and denial. He demonized anyone connected to reports -- and there were many -- that he was doping. He intimidated and threatened anyone who revealed, or might reveal, what he was up to.

From the time he won his first Tour, not quite three years after learning his body was raging with cancerous tumors that required two rounds of surgery and three months of chemotherapy, Armstrong fervently accepted the hero's mantle -- and built on it.

He was the subject of an uplifting documentary by Bud Greenspan, the late master of inspirational sports films. His agent, Bill Stapleton, at the time called Armstrong's post-cancer Tour success "probably the most life-affirming and compelling story I've ever witnessed."

In a statement released Wednesday, Hincapie, the Farmingdale High School graduate who was a loyal Armstrong teammate through all of Armstrong's Tour victories, acknowledged his own doping and -- unlike Armstrong -- his "deep regret," with the hardly surprising admission that banned drugs were in cycling's very bloodstream.

"Early in my professional career," Hincapie said, "it became clear that, given the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs by cyclists at the top of the profession, it was not possible to compete at the highest level without them."

Would a real hero have attempted to set himself apart from all those dirty, rotten scoundrels? Could Armstrong's good deeds for cancer somehow balance out, ultimately, a career of furtive deception?

The 17th Century English clergyman and metaphysical poet George Herbert wrote, "Living well is the best revenge." With Lance Armstrong, it isn't so easy to define the living well.

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