Friday, August 24, 2012

Truth Loses at End of Armstrong's Race

Remember Winnie the Pooh?

Whenever he tried to remember something, he'd sit there, and tap his noggin, muttering, "think, think think..."

I feel like Winnie the Pooh as I try to remember the last time I rode a bicycle.  I think it was up in Michigan, years ago, on a trip to visit my brother and his family.  I honestly can't recall.

Obviously, I'm not much of a bike rider.  But that doesn't mean Lance Armstrong's stunning announcement last night means nothing to me.  The seven-time Tour de France champion has thrown in the towel after fighting for years to preserve his racing record against incessant charges that he used illegal performance enhancing drugs.

Lance, Legacy, Legality, and Legitimacy

No, I'm not a bicycle enthusiast, but like a lot of people, I thought Armstrong was an extraordinary athlete and humanitarian.  At least until he divorced his wife, and started cavorting with Cheryl Crow.  I lost a lot of respect for him then, probably because his lack of commitment to his family rendered him far more ordinary a person than his bicycling achievements would lead us to believe.  He battled back from testicular cancer to not only the winner's circle in bicycle racing, but to illegitimately father - biologically, after testicular cancer - two more kids through his current girlfriend.  As remarkable as those feats may be, to me, moral integrity still trumps physical prowess every time.  Not that I expect everybody to be perfect, and certainly, Armstrong is no axe murderer.  But some bad decisions are worse than others.

Speaking of bad decisions and illegitimacy, Armstrong has been dogged for years by accusations that he's taken performance drugs.  Yet no incontrovertible proof has ever surfaced - and stuck - to support those allegations.  I've actually felt sorry for Armstrong since it has seemed more out of spite and envy than legitimate evidence that people continue to accuse him of things that, supposedly, his 500-plus urine and blood test results say are not true.

No less than a federal grand jury was convened in 2010 to determine if any criminal charges should be filed against Armstrong, but after two years of work, the grand jury was terminated without revealing any findings.

Almost immediately, however, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) picked up the allegations and began running its own marathon with the allegations, suspicions, and accusations made by journalists around the world, Armstrong's professional peers and competitors, and sports officials.  The USADA has a mandate from Congress to serve as our country's anti-doping watchdog for athletes representing us in the Olympics, although it's unclear the extent of its jurisdiction in competitions such as the Tour de France.  Armstrong tried to challenge the USADA in court, but his suit was overturned on more of a legal technicality than a firm ruling on the USADA's right of jurisdiction.

Apparently, that setback, after years of fighting similar allegations in both legal courts and the court of public opinion, proved too great a loss for Armstrong's normally competitive spirit.

Now, I'm neither a lawyer nor an expert on doping, but whether Armstrong is guilty or innocent, shouldn't the way the USADA's case against him has played out be disconcerting to us Americans?  Several puzzling and disturbing precedents appear to have been set with the way a quasi-government organization was able to ignore the findings - or lack of them - by a federal grand jury and, within a matter of months, torpedo just about all of the championships Armstrong has acquired throughout his career.  Then there are nearly 600 drug tests to which Armstrong submitted as a racer over the course of many years that always showed him to be clean.  If those drug tests were faulty, how many other cyclists are doping and still - somehow - doctoring their tests so they can pass?

For years, professional sports has been dogged by doping allegations and players who really have doped.  Some sports experts say it's all part of the American public's thirst for achievement and athletic theatrics.  As long as we fans keep expecting bigger, greater, faster, longer, harder, and more entertaining feats of human performance, athletes will find ways to win our admiration.  And more often than not, that includes illegal performance enhancing drugs.

Unfortunately, whenever an athlete accomplishes something extraordinary these days, we immediately wonder about doping, instead of reflexively appreciating what appears to be sheer athleticism.  To the extent Armstrong's long slog through the muck of doping allegations has become as much a part of his career as his awards, whether he's guilty or innocent, Armstrong has placed a heavy burden of proof on all other high-achieving athletes.

That itself is an unsettling legacy.  The fact that sports fans push for more performance - and then recoil in skepticism when our sports stars deliver - further tarnishes it all.

Who's Hiding the Truth?

From what I've read about Armstrong over the years, he's one driven and determined individual.  Almost single-minded in his pursuit of bicycle glory.  Many athletes are like that, and with the kind of emotion and commitment such a pursuit demands, it's not surprising to have rumors and innuendo floating around among peers and competitors in baseball, football, basketball, and soccer leagues.  And cycling competitions.

Yet isn't it scary that the USADA has been able to overturn one man's globally-renowned career without providing one scrap of evidence to the public?  Maybe at some point in the near future, the USADA will put the evidence they say they have on the table for closer inspection by doping experts and Armstrong's legal team.  And, as some pundits have already said, maybe Armstrong's stunning deflation - in what has been an otherwise vigorous defense of his record - actually resembles a grim acknowledgement that, yes, he knows about the proof the USADA has been dangling over our summertime like a disguised bomb.  He knows the gig is up.

A process for appealing the USADA's actions was available to Armstrong, but curiously, he chose not to pursue it.

Maybe because he figured leaving his fans in the lurch, not knowing the truth, was better for his legacy than risking the truth's revelation?

Maybe he worked out a secret deal with the USADA in which, in exchange for dropping his legal challenges and waiving his right to appeal, they won't reveal the dirt they have on him to another grand jury.  He'll likely lose his awards, but he'll also stay out of prison.

Meanwhile, however, I'm not convinced the USADA has served our country well.  I'm not convinced the Congress of the United States should have created a body of officials who have the power to levy such a penalty against a citizen without providing proof in a court of law.  It's been happening to other athletes in a variety of sports for years, and the public has been mostly unaware of it.

Maybe for the USADA, their gig should be up, too?

Call me a conspiracy theorist or fringe malcontent on this one, but right now, it appears that Armstrong isn't the only one losing out.  We're supposed to be a nation of laws, courts, and due process.  What's happened to those in this case?  Unless this time, Armstrong's deference to the court of public opinion is preferable to him than the laws and courts the rest of us would have faced.

Either way, doesn't it seem like truth is coming out more victim than victor?

Pooh.
_____

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