There is no greater icon in American sports than super-cyclist Lance Armstrong. As virtually everybody knows, this gritty Texan survived a frightening bout with cancer and then won the grueling Tour de France, the Super Bowl of cycling, a record seven times.
For years he has dodged accusations that his victories were made possible in part by the use of performance enhancing substances and techniques such as blood doping. At the heart of his defense is his assertion that he has never tested positive in any of the 500 or so occasions when he was tested for the use of PEDs.
A federal investigation — similar to the one into baseball's all-time home run king Barry Bonds — has now gotten some of his teammates on the U.S. Postal Service team to (grudgingly) admit to seeing Mr. Armstrong use performance enhancers.
This was revealed on 60 Minutes during an interview with Tyler Hamilton, considered the closest teammate to the champion during Mr. Armstrong's years with the USPS squad. He said of Mr. Armstrong, "He used what we used." He also said his friend did test positive for a drug called EPO in 2001 but that the powers-that-be "made it go away."
It was also revealed on the CBS program that another teammate and friend, George Hincapie, gave similar eyewitness testimony to the grand jury hearing evidence in the case.
Mr. Armstrong's reaction was yet another insistence that he has never tested positive and indeed has never used performance enhancing drugs in his storied career.
He would seem to be boxed into a corner as this investigation continues, but there is a special status granted Lance Armstrong, one unlike any other athletic superstar: He is a hero beyond measure to millions of cancer survivors around the world.
They tend to believe his multiple denials of using PEDs, but for them what he has done to inspire people to overcome cancer is infinitely more important than anything else, even if these accusations are borne out.
Darren Rovell of CBNC says that Lance Armstrong's business empire is stronger than ever. His Nike Livestrong line has grown from 80 million rubber bracelets sold to a significant business of apparel and shoes expected to reach $75 million in sales this year.
The Lance Armstrong Foundation, Mr. Rovell reports, continues to flourish with total contributions on pace to pass $50 million this year. His supporters don't much care whether he used performance enhancing substances. After all, the truth is that cycling is rife with this practice and that it's hard to imagine anyone winning the Tour de France without such use.
Watching the race — made ever more compelling by HDTV — is to watch these athletes perform at levels almost unimaginable. This year's event begins July 2nd and runs through July 22nd and covers 3,471 kilometers (about 2,156 miles) in 21 stages.
Since 2000, a dozen world-class cyclists have been killed in racing accidents. This makes the NFL look like a relatively safe profession for the players involved.
Some of the sport's greatest champions have either tested positive for doping or admitted to it. Eddie Merckx, a legend in the sport, tested positive for a stimulant as far back as 1969 and was stripped of his 1973 Giro di Lombardia win for the same offense.
The Italian Fausto Coppi, champion of champions, never an admitted doper, baldy told a television interviewer that he only took drugs when necessary, "which is nearly always."
(My thanks to a listener who sent me an article from Bicycling Magazine with this information.)
Is it cheating when everybody cheats, or is gaming the system the only way to succeed? Everybody has to make up his own mind in passing judgment on that. Cyclists push their bodies harder than we can ever imagine.
As Tyler Hamilton asked 60 Minutes' Scott Pelley, "What would you do?" There was no answer.
The government is involved in this because the USPS paid nearly $32 million dollars to fund its team from 2001-2004. Was the government defrauded because its team members used performance enhancing drugs?
Although the postal service loses billions of dollars a year, it did receive tremendous exposure from its sponsorship, estimated to be worth over $100 million.
I, for one, would like to see the government bring the same dedication to hunting down the Wall Street criminals who brought down the economy as it does to pursuing athletes who cheated.
Fat chance of that.
Ron Smith's column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.