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Philip Hersh: In summing up Lance Armstrong (again), the parts make a discomfiting whole

February 16, 2011 | 11:41 am

Lance Armstrong announcing his allegedly definitive retirement has the feeling of a "Dog Bites Man" story.

After all, Armstrong already said before finishing 65th in last month's Tour Down Under in Australia he would no longer race internationally. So it was hardly a surprise when he told the Associated Press early Tuesday that he would no longer race, period.

I guess I have to take Armstrong at his word about the retirement, no matter how hard it is for me to take his word about anything, especially his relentless denials of having used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

My long-held general skepticism about Armstrong was increased six years ago, when I was in France covering the final days of what was to have been his retirement after winning a seventh Tour de France.  He would come back and ride the Tour twice more, finishing third in 2009 and 23rd last year.

Armstrong is, of course, hardly the only athlete to change his mind about quitting: Exhibit A, Michael Jordan, another person with a Nike-magnified gloss whose competitive drive was boundless.

And, yes, I used the word "exhibit," on purpose, since that could be a key term in the next phase of Armstrong's cycling-related life, if a federal grand jury indicts him in a case that would center on whether he doped.

For now though, the issue is whether it is any easier to sum up Armstrong at 39 than it was when he was 33.

Lance1jpg It is tempting simply to cut and paste the 1,750 words I wrote for the final Sunday of what Armstrong said was his final Tour de France in 2005, a Chicago Tribune story headlined, "Lance Armstrong; last step into history.''

Then as now, Armstrong was both the most inspirational while controversial superstar athlete the United States ever produced.

Beginning in 1999, he made the U.S. public think spinning your wheels fast and for days on end was worth paying attention to.

That had little to do with Armstrong's first triumph over what many think is the toughest major endurance event in sports; after all, Greg LeMond had been the first U.S. rider to win the Tour de France in 1986, and LeMond did it again in 1989 and 1990, but that remarkable record was a big deal mainly in the cycling community.

Armstrong became bigger than that, as big as any U.S. sports figure over the next decade, because he had overcome a particularly deadly type of cancer before winning the Tour and thereby given millions of other cancer patients both an intangible boost (hope) and tangible help ($400 million, according to the Associated Press, that the Lance Armstrong Foundation raised for the fight against cancer.)

As I wrote in 2005, surviving cancer gave Armstrong "a dimension different from that of any other superstar athlete in the history of American sports." 

To many, it also has given him the equivalent of a lifetime get-out-of-jail card, no matter how many former teammates or associates claim he doped, no matter how many frozen samples turned up positive for EPO (as was the case in 2005, when unofficial retesting found that banned substance in Armstrong samples from 1999), no matter what may happen in a courtroom, no matter what new circumstantial evidence is turned up in stories like the one Sports Illustrated published last month. ("The Case Against Lance Armstrong.")

A letter to the editor about that story in a subsequent issue of Sports Illustrated summed up the prevailing view of Armstrong.

Lance2 Concerned that what he called continued "shaming of Armstrong" would eventually stop donations to the Lance Armstrong Foundation and be a setback for cancer research, letter writer Kevin Shipp of Northport, Ala., concluded: "As a sports fan, do I think Armstrong used PEDs?  Sure. As a cancer survivor, do I care?  Absolutely not!'' 

Certainly, there is much more doping smoke around Armstrong -- and still no smoking gun -- than there was in 2005, when I wrote he was a man whose "reputation has been clouded by persistent allegations that performance-enhancing drugs played a part in his success."

Over the years, I have frequently asked myself how athletes who knew they were dopers could deny it and still look themselves in the mirror. (Hello, Marion Jones.) I have finally concluded that many of them simply are using a trick mirror, one distorted by celebrity and fame and money and the moral equivocation that everyone else is doping, anyway.

I guess the sad truth is that doping revelations about star athletes, especially cyclists, also have become "Dog Bites Man" stories. 

For the 2005 story, which I thought was my last word on Armstrong as an active athlete, my editors had wanted me to reflect upon Armstrong's career and place in the U.S. sporting and cultural fabric. 

I asked several people to put Armstrong in that larger perspective. One was 1968 Boston Marathon champion Amby Burfoot, whom I quoted then as saying, "The sports world produces many champions but few inspirations. Lance is both."

Today I asked Burfoot, an editor at Runner's World magazine, whether he feels the same way.

"Lacking definitive proof of wrong-doing, I continue to believe Lance Armstrong is both a great champion and a great inspiration," Burfoot said in an e-mail.

"[But]) I'm no Pollyanna, and I personally find it difficult to believe Lance could have been so dominant in a sport apparently so riddled with drug users if he hadn't been doping as well.'' 

One part champion and hero, rising above sport. One part seemingly a false idol, stooping to the ethical common denominator of his sport.

One part arrogant and regularly dismissive of both rivals and teammates -- ask Alberto Contador how Armstrong treated him when the Spaniard was both rival and teammate at the 2009 Tour. One part unfailingly empathetic to the cancer survivors who see him as a touchstone.

That is Lance Armstrong.

There is no easy summation.

But that is how the story must end.

Photos: (Above) Fans greet Lance Armstrong on a stage of what was to have been his final Tour de France in 2005. Credit: Stefano Bellandini / Reuters. (Below) Armstrong at the start of a stage in the 2010 Tour of California. Credit: Anthony Bolante / Reuters.