- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2005

By now, we know the drill with Lance Armstrong.

Someone comes out with the claim that he used the performance-enhancing drug EPO as an aid to his unprecedented seven consecutive Tour de France championships, and Armstrong responds with a vigorous denial and makes a call to his legal team.

The French newspaper L’Equipe is the latest publication to question the purity of the cycling icon, only this time with an investigation that the event’s executive director finds unsettling.

The executive director terms the report “very complete, very professional, very meticulous,” and it “appears credible.”

Before anyone connects the dots of the troubled political relationship between France and the United States and the French element that wanted anyone but the Texan to win the event to the L’Equipe exclusive, the executive director of the Tour de France has a whole lot of financial reasons to speak out against the report.

No matter France’s contradictory feelings for Armstrong, Tour de France officials recognize the obvious: Armstrong’s ascent was very good to a sport reeling from drug scandals. Armstrong’s transcendent qualities also brought the U.S. marketplace into France, and money inevitably speaks louder than the words of gas bags.

Armstrong came to be the face of cycling at a time the sport desperately needed an image-enhancing boost, not unlike the lift that was provided to baseball by the home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998.

As we know now, that home run chase looks a whole lot less wholesome and innocent today.

Fair or not, the house of Armstrong is enveloped in an increasing amount of smoke.

And the smoke is reaching a critical mass, judging by the reaction of international sports officials.

Jean-Marie Leblanc, executive director of the Tour de France, says, “I remain cautious and slightly circumspect, but this is troubling, and I feel disappointment in me like many sports lovers must do.”

Dick Pound, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, says, “If the evidence is credible, then, yes, he has an obligation to come forward and specifically give his comments, especially after his previous comments that he never has used drugs.”

Armstrong always comes forward at times like these, and this time it is no different. He posted his denial on his official Web site.

As his defenders note, Armstrong never has flunked a drug test, although that hardly addresses the 1999 urine samples that fell into the hands of L’Equipe. After all, cycling’s governing body did not start testing for EPO until 2001. Before then, the drug was undetectable.

After capturing his seventh title in July, Armstrong addressed the doubters in his midst.

“To all the cynics, I’m sorry for you,” he said. “I’m sorry you can’t believe in miracles.”

And he has a point.

Cynicism pervades the sports culture today because of the dubious actions of all too many sports figures.

When Rafael Palmeiro gives the performance of his life while testifying before Congress in March and then tests positive for steroid use, a disappointed public becomes conditioned to be ever more skeptical.

Once nabbed by a drug test, an athlete then feels obligated to insult the intelligence of the public further by saying, “It beats me how that got into my body.”

Armstrong can be thankful that the series of claims lodged against him over the years have emanated from Europe. Distance and unfamiliarity have neutralized the reports to a degree. The latest bombshell certainly would be seen in a harsher light if its origins were a Texas newspaper.

Armstrong recently rode alongside President Bush in Crawford, Texas, which stoked speculation of his political ambitions following his retirement from cycling.

Armstrong has an image at stake, a legacy to protect, and a future dependent on his carefully cultivated, mass-marketed story of inspiration. He beat cancer, then the cycling world.

He either is a victim of the times or just another athlete who was not all he seemed.

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