For a feel-good story, this ought to have it all over the Women's World Cup. Lance Armstrong is not only an American in international play (which we love), he's also a cancer survivor (love more). Does it get any better? Three years ago surgeons were peeling the top of his skull to remove tumors. Now he can dominate foreigners in the Tour de France. One imagines him ripping off his yellow jersey at the finish this Sunday, his arms raised to the heavens. One imagines breathless headlines: YES!
But the feeling we're getting is more like: MAYBE? Armstrong's heroics are receiving tentative play, as cycling is no longer considered as wholesome as women's soccer. The Tour de France in particular has been marked by more chemistry than a junior high science fair, and no matter how thoroughly the riders have been tested this time around, there is lingering suspicion that they're using compounds more sophisticated than starch to get up those hills.
For Armstrong, whose testicular cancer in 1996 seemed to doom more than a cycling career, the cynicism has been doubly tragic. Headlines throughout Europe have not so much applauded his comeback as hinted about his mysterious go-power. HALLUCINATING ARMSTRONG, one read. ARMSTRONG PUTS A BOMB UNDER THE TOUR, read another. Armstrong says he understands the suspicion, seeing as how chemotherapy is not thought to be performance-enhancing in the same way as EPO. But what if, as he insists, he's taken nothing more exotic than multivitamins? What if he's winning fair and square?
Won't matter. The sad truth is that he won't transcend the drug-soaked perception of his sport. Pedal all he wants, he can't outrace innuendo, whispers and haunting suspicion. What Armstrong is doing right now is so remarkable that everything we thought we knew about human athletic achievement needs to be reconsidered. If he wins the Tour de France, coming off his deathbed, restraint must be forever employed in the clich�d use of "comeback."
And yet...the only glare Armstrong is likely to bask in will be the glare of suspicion. Sports, it seems, are more fragile than the people in them. Doctors can sweep Armstrong free of cancer in three years, but it may take longer to cure a game once those first malignant tumors-greed, corruption, cheating—are discovered. Confidence has a higher mortality rate than testicular cancer.
It's a shame that Armstrong's story won't get the proper telling, that the sport so badly failed him, or that we, in our cynicism, let him down. To our everlasting shame, this might be the one winner who turns up clean.