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Fans crave what cheating provides

As a longtime fan of bicycle racing — I was on the finish line in Paris in 1986 when Greg LeMond became the first American to win the Tour de France — I followed Lance Armstrong's career with intense excitement as he took cycling from the wings to center stage in his country's sport consciousness. That said, it became clear that while his story of cancer survival was compelling and inspiring, Mr. Armstrong was not a pleasant person. He was selfish and self-centered. But so are many athletes. Getting yourself to that stage of physical perfection is a selfish endeavor.

I was something of an agnostic on the rampant doping charges, believing at first that Mr. Armstrong had probably doped pre-cancer but not afterward. And I also thought Eurocentricism led the continent's reporters to single him out for attack when so many of their own were guilty. After he retired, I didn't understand the point of trying to take him down — and with him, all the good work of the Livestrong foundation.

I was wrong. The details of what Mr. Armstrong did are appalling and needed full public airing. The way he treated those who told the truth went far beyond acting like a selfish jerk. He did immense damage to many innocents. Mr. Armstrong was able to get away with what he did because he had unparalleled power in cycling. He could have used that power to clean up the sport, but he did the opposite. His fall from hero status is well deserved. I do not mourn the broken pieces that now surround the base of the pedestal he once occupied.

Still, I am getting a bit tired of the piling on now rampant in the sports press. For many of his detractors, whatever Mr. Armstrong said to Oprah Winfrey in their interviews — short of self-immolation — would not be enough. He admitted his guilt and expressed remorse and sounded to me like a pretty sick individual taking the first steps in coming to terms with his disease. Give him a break while we see what subsequent steps he takes.

But beyond that is the way his sin is held up as violating something sacred to sport: He cheated! The fact is, many of our revered sports heroes cheat, and we think nothing of it. If a baseball hero traps a ball in the outfield but holds it up for the umpire as a legitimate catch — and gets away with it — we smile at the guile. But it is cheating. You don't see a football player admitting he didn't really catch the pass, or a basketball player admitting he was the last to touch a ball going out bounds, or a tennis player saying an opponent's ball called out was in.

You might argue it's not cheating because what counts is what the umpire says, no matter the truth. That's just part of the game. But that was exactly the argument Mr. Armstrong used: He was never caught by the drug "umpires." He got away with it — as did so many others in cycling — so it was OK.

We look at doping as something different, but it is not clear why. We don't feel that way about scientifically designed diets that put the correct nutrients in the body or expensive operations like Tommy John surgery that reconstruct joints with stronger tendons or even artificial products. All those enhance performance, but for some reason using drugs to do the same is deemed unfair.

I am not condoning doping, but I do think it should be put in perspective. Why not condemn all cheating in sport with equal ferocity?

But more to the point, let's adjust our expectations of athletes. Once Lance Armstrong survived cancer, if he had gone back to cycling clean, few of us would have ever heard of him. He would be a minor athlete in a minor sport who had little impact on our consciousness and on the cancer world. Athletes cheat — with drugs and other methods — in part because of what we demand of them. For Mr. Armstrong to be an inspirational cancer survivor, it was not enough that he again compete in the Tour. He gained attention only by winning.

And it is no longer enough for a genetic marvel to come along every generation or two to set world records in track, swimming and so many sports. We now expect every star to surpass the last one. If they don't, we make clear our disappointment in the marketplace. Sadly, doping becomes the way to make a decent living.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault may not be in our sports stars, but in ourselves.

Michael Hill is a former longtime Baltimore Sun reporter. His email is hillforg@aol.com.

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