End of an icon

It may be a desire for immortality that pushes some athletes to seek to transcend the limitations of mere mortal bodies through the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Certainly Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner and Olympic champion, seemed well on his way to achieving that status in sports legend. But it all came crashing down on Friday, when he announced he would no longer contest charges by the United States Anti-Doping Agency that his victories were tainted by illegal doping. The decision means he will likely be stripped of all his Tour de France and Olympic titles and ordered to return any winnings he earned.

Mr. Armstrong said at a press conference that he was simply tired of being hounded by allegations of illegal drug use that have pursued him for at least a decade. He portrays himself as the victim of what he called "an unconstitutional witch hunt" by the USADA. But in declining to fight the charges he previously had denied, he must know that many people will interpret his decision as a tacit admission of guilt. For the millions who had come to regard him as an icon of his sport — indeed, of sports in general — the moment marked a sad end to what had been a celebrated career.

The allegations of illegal doping against Mr. Armstrong were brought by the U.S. agency responsible for ensuring the integrity of all Olympic sports competitions in the Western Hemisphere. In June, it claimed to have evidence that Mr. Armstrong had used illegal performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career, and that at least 10 witnesses were prepared to testify about having seen him use the steroids EPO, testosterone and other drugs when he won his medals. The agency also accused him of being a ringleader of a doping scheme in which his Tour de France teammates participated and said that his blood test results from 2009 and 2010 were also consistent with doping.

Mr. Armstrong occupied a unique place among superstar athletes in that his fame as a cancer survivor loomed nearly as large in his legend as his phenomenal performance as a cyclist. He was diagnosed with the disease in 1996, at the age of 25, yet managed to overcome the illness and return to win a slew of additional awards, including the 1999 Tour de France and an Olympic bronze medal in 2000. His amazing resilience inspired cancer patients around the world to believe their disease could be beaten, and it turned Mr. Armstrong into a symbol of hope that transcended the sports world.

He now joins the legions of other sports figures whose careers have imploded over allegations of illegal steroid use. In recent days, for example, two Major League Baseball players, including San Francisco Giants star Melky Cabrera, were banned for 50 games without pay for using performance-enhancing drugs. The outsized ambition that drives athletes to reach the very highest levels of achievement too often is also the cause of their downfall. In their constant search for anything that might give them an edge over the competition they may even feel justified in taking ethical shortcuts and reckless risks with their bodies in order to win, on the assumption that everyone else is doing the same. But sooner or later their actions come back to haunt them.

Mr. Armstrong insists that he has done nothing wrong and that all his athletic laurels have been fairly won. He may yet convince his fans that he is the injured party in a USADA vendetta aimed at destroying his reputation and livelihood. But he cannot make the evidence the agency has assembled go away, and by choosing not to confront or refute it, his claim to innocence inevitably rings hollow.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad