Armstrong's likely guilt beyond the point

Aug. 29, 2012

Don't throw out your Livestrong bracelets just yet.

I say that because I ask: What is the greater good being served here as the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has corralled Lance Armstrong in what appears to be a series of lies going back close to two decades?

I do have a strong, sad belief that Armstrong is probably guilty of taking illegal substances to help him win seven Tour de France titles, along with its concurrent riches, fame and notoriety. I abhor it because it sets such a lousy example for athletes young and old and is, in fact, just plain wrong.

Having said that, his guilt or innocence is beyond the point.

The EPO, steroids or whatever he may have taken, did not help Armstrong beat back testicular cancer. I saw the video of him in the hospital, emaciated and gaunt, hooked up to a dozen IVs at the worst of his illness.

Great medical attention, good luck and incredible willpower got him out of that bed and back onto a bike.

He made himself a contender again through his own resources. How he made himself a champion is still up for debate. The USADA has 10 former teammates willing to testify against him. Armstrong, who has likened this decade-long trial of accu sation a "witch-hunt" (a term I cautiously agree with), has his hundreds of passed drug tests at his back.

A different backstory

If he is guilty, what is the difference between him and, say, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds? Those two were healthy adult athletes when they probably began taking illegal substances to enhance their abilities. Armstrong, as we know, had a much different backstory.

I haven't seen any national polls on Armstrong's believability and popularity, but I bet it's still fairly high, because the stories of people coming back from cancer just to compete on a high level in something as grueling as cycling are few and far between.

Most of us know why he remains believable. He beat back the cancer and then helped others do it themselves. His Lance Armstrong Foundation (more commonly known as Livestrong), since its formation in 1997, has raised more than $500 million for cancer awareness, education and related topics.

Livestrong is a complicated organization focused more on helping people cope with the disease as opposed to funding actual research. Armstrong's face and accomplishments help it thrive, though some have accused him of using its good work for self-promotion. A charitable rating agency gives it an A-minus grade, as in recent studies, 81 percent of its money went to actual programs.

Regardless, Armstrong and Livestrong remain an inspiration for many people to keep fighting and surviving.

I remember an old TV ad, back in his heyday, of Armstrong riding through a series of streets that bordered hospitals, with real cancer patients waving and smiling to him from windows and him smiling and waving back.

Yes, it was an ad shoot, but the cancer patients were real, and I have no doubt that their smiles were real because in Armstrong they had a champion who gave them hope that they could not only live, but thrive.

That idea does not diminish because of what happened last week when Armstrong, exhausted by all the accusations and at the end of a legal tether, finally said "enough."

Legitimately or not, USADA and the related governing organizations are going to strip Armstrong of all his titles.

Will people lose hope?

It is an act of little real-world consequence only meant to serve as a warning to other future would-be cheats, but of far greater meaning are the following questions: Will this endless trial of fire cause donations to Livestrong to slip, or cause it to fall apart altogether?

And much, much worse: Will it cause some people currently going through treatment to lose hope?

If the answer to those questions, especially the last one, is "yes," then the term "witch-hunt" is being properly used here.

People who know me know that cancer has touched me very closely, and I keep a wide open, very wary eye on it. People I love dearly and respect greatly (including my wife) have fought it, beat it back and continue to serve as an inspiration to me and many others. I will be at their sides no matter what the cost.

Armstrong, whatever his level of guilt, remains an inspiration for all he has done for cancer awareness. That he may have earned the fame to do so in a less than legal or inspirational way, as I have said, matters little.

So what?

I recall a conversation I had with an area trainer while sitting at a baseball game several years ago. He, too, is a cyclist. It was at Armstrong's height, and the first rumors of him using illegal drugs were surfacing. Armstrong had also formed the foundation by this time and was getting the word out that cancer is something you should respect but not necessarily fear.

That latter point was a breathtaking concept, said the trainer.

However, even back then, the trainer thought that Armstrong was guilty, but I also remember what he said very clearly after he made that point: "So what? Look at all the good he's doing."

Please remember that thought as more stories on this issue, most of them sad and weary, come out in the near future.

And please make sure you keep Livestrong on your list of favorite charities along with the American Cancer Society ($900 million raised last year) and the National Cancer Institute ($2 billion in research grants alone last year).

Many people, including myself, would be most grateful.

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