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An icon smashed

The International Cycling Union's announcement today that it was stripping superstar athlete Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles over charges of illegal doping effectively ended one of the most celebrated sports careers in recent memory. Mr. Armstrong's name is to be removed from the Tour's official record books, and he is banned for life from future competitions. It's likely the International Olympic Committee will move soon to strip him of his 2000 Olympic bronze medal as well, and corporate sponsors may demand he return millions of dollars in now-tainted winnings.

Mr. Armstrong's public disgrace undoubtedly comes as a huge disappointment to people around the world who admired him not only for his phenomenal feats as a cyclist but also as a cancer survivor who inspired millions in their battle against the disease. It's not often that athletes achieve fame as philanthropists, but Mr. Armstrong used his celebrity to create a charitable foundation dedicated to helping cancer patients, and that undoubtedly will contribute to a certain ambivalence in many people about his a precipitous fall.

In that sense, Mr. Armstrong's humiliation is different from other prominent sports figures whose achievements have been tainted by allegations of illegal doping, such as ballplayers Sammy Sosa, Mark McGuire, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. In their case, the betrayal of the public's trust was connected only to their fans' passion for amusement rather than to an issue, such as cancer research and treatment, that touches people's lives in the real world. For that very reason it may be especially hard for many people not to feel some sense of loss over the disconnect between Lance Armstrong the hero they wanted to believe in and the devious, unethical competitor he is now revealed to have been.

Yet the evidence of consistent use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs by Mr. Armstrong and his teammates uncovered by the United States Anti-Doping Agency last month was overwhelming. The USADA found a systematic pattern of abuses over a nearly 10-year period during which Mr. Armstrong not only used such drugs himself but bullied and threatened his teammates into using them as well in order to further ensure his victories. In a withering report released last month that Mr. Armstrong has declined to dispute, the agency documented a career that was built on deceit and lies from the beginning and that even now Mr. Armstrong remains unwilling to take responsibility for.

It is perhaps a measure of the pervasiveness of the ethical challenges facing cycling today that the Tour de France's organizers have announced they won't elevate the second-place finishers to the winners circle in the races Mr. Armstrong won. Why? Because so many of those riders have been linked to illegal doping as well.

Clearly there was a failure of leadership among cycling's highest governing bodies that encouraged competitors to believe they could ignore the ban on doping and get away with it forever. One can only hope this episode will lead to more stringent monitoring of what athletes put in their bodies and a change of attitude among the officials charged with overseeing the sport.

Nor is it clear how Mr. Armstrong's wrongdoing will affect the foundation he created, whose mission remains vital to those struggling with cancer. Last week, Mr. Armstrong stepped down as chairman of his Livestrong foundation, but he remains on the board where his presence could still damage the brand. It would be a pity to see the charity he founded, which continues to do good work, also fall victim to the reputation for treachery and deceitfulness that is now attached to its founder.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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