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FENNO: Swept away by Lance Armstrong myth

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

On a drizzly Paris afternoon seven and a half years ago, the mob jammed along the Champs Elysees swept me away.

Flags from the U.S. and Texas decorated trees and windows and cafes and balconies. People stood on chairs and tables shoved out of overpriced cafes for a glimpse as Lance Armstrong whizzed toward his seventh Tour de France victory.

Play-by-play boomed down the avenue, past cowboy hats and boots, past fans dangling from trees, past impromptu picnics around miniature kegs of Heineken that trickled onto the pavement. The jubilant, chaotic mass of people enveloped me. I couldn't move unless the crowd did.

They believed in the tale of the miracle worker the French dubbed "Malliot Jaune," who doctors gave a 40 percent chance to live after cancer ravaged his body, endured brutal chemotherapy and brain surgery, then transformed himself into the greatest cyclist the world has known and, somehow, stayed clean in a sport overrun by doping.

I believed, too.

We didn't see a man. We saw a myth.

That, of course, is easy to believe since Armstrong admitted doping — after a decade of screaming and suing his way to keep alive the fiction of riding clean — to Oprah Winfrey during an interview taped Monday night. The whole thing was a drug-addled con, the man who didn't finish three of his four Tours before cancer suddenly able to dominate the sport after months of poison being pumped through his body, shredding the thigh-crushing Alpe d'Huez and anyone who got in his way, like no one had before or since.

Why did we buy into Armstrong's myth when so many signs pointed to its fraudulence?

The narrative, really, was too perfect to be broken. It blinded logic and common sense and the awkward intrusions of reality that Armstrong and his band of lawyers and publicists slapped down with viciousness that pointed to the dark side of his rise, if we wanted to listen. But we didn't.

Instead, we wanted to believe. In the yellow LiveStrong bracelets. Millions raised for cancer research. The underdog who beat cancer and anything the European cycling powers could throw at him and, yes, those pesky folks who claimed he wasn't clean.

We saw and heard what we wanted to and, in that, ignored the truth.

That ugly myth-busting truth existed in the open all along, even as Armstrong told anyone who would listen he never failed a drug test and never used performance-enhancing drugs. That's what we wanted to hear. Never mind the trail of lawsuits and broken lives and threats that followed those who dared speak truth against Armstrong.

He sued The Sunday Times of London for libel in 2005 after it reprinted part of Pierre Ballester and David Walsh's book "L.A. Confidential" documenting Armstrong's doping. Armstrong confronted Christophe Bassons after the cyclist spoke out against doping in the Tour. Former masseuse Emma O'Reilly was sued. Same with ex-personal assistant Mike Anderson. Betsy Andreu, the wife of former teammate Frankie, testified that she heard Armstrong admit doping and was threatened at every turn. Floyd Landis fingered Armstrong in 2010. Tyler Hamilton followed in 2011.

Armstrong always had an excuse. Or another lawsuit. Or the unrestrained vengeance to keep people quiet Anderson detailed in a first-person story in Outside magazine last year.

The list of Armstrong's victims goes on, people whose lives and reputations can't be repaired by his quest for absolution on Oprah's couch. An entire sport became about one man and so, too, does his attempt at redemption. The others, as always, are shoved to the shadows.

Evidence finally overwhelmed the myth. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's 1,000-plus page report last October detailed Armstrong's indiscretions and lack of cooperation that added up to a lifetime ban.

"Lance Armstrong was given the same opportunity to come forward and be part of the solution," the USADA report read. "He rejected it."

Armstrong's seven Tour titles are gone. Now he's the one targeted by lawsuits.

And my thoughts return to the afternoon in Paris. "The Star Spangled Banner" drifted through the Place de Concorde as Armstrong held his right hand over his heart. A long roar followed from thousands of believers nearby, like an ocean tide rolling in.

"Merci, Lance!" the public address announcer bellowed.

A month later, the respected French sports daily L'Equipe published "The Armstrong Lie." Four pages alleged Armstrong's use of the performance-enhancing drug EPO during his first Tour victory.

I brushed off the story.

I wanted the myth to be real. I wanted to be swept away.

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