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He ranked among the most ferociously competitive athletes of the last two decades, but in the end, Lance Armstrong lost his appetite for battle. And so we are to be deprived of a dramatic courtroom denouement from him, such as the one delivered by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men.
Safer to do it this way. For it's not clear that, adoring as they are, Armstrong's yellow-braceleted legions of supporters could have handled the truth—in the form of sworn testimony from the 10 or so ex-teammates prepared to talk in detail about the blood bags, syringes and testosterone patches. Rather than take his chances in an arbitration hearing with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which had accused him of cheating his way to his seven consecutive Tour de France titles, beginning in 1999, the man who fought cancer and won looked at the charges arrayed against him and said uncle.
That's not how Armstrong and his retinue of lawyers and spin doctors want you to see it. They much prefer that you think of him as a persecuted victim taking a lonely, courageous stand against The Man. He's innocent, you see, but he's also very tired of this long, pitched battle with an oppressive, obsessive agency engaged in what he termed "an unconstitutional witch hunt."
The end of this hunt marks, one hopes, the end of a misbegotten era. Athletes will still cheat. (See: Cabrera, Melky.) Following the trials of Bonds and Clemens, L'Affaire Armstrong looks like the last instance of the feds spending seven-figure sums to snare the marquee performers.
Of course Armstrong is exhausted: He's been fending off skeptics for as long as he'd been winning Tours. Irish journalist David Walsh found his sustained accelerations in the mountains in 1999 so spectacular as to be implausible, and wasn't afraid to say so. Greg Lemond cast doubt on the legitimacy of Armstrong's victories as early as 2001 upon learning that the Texan had been working with Michele Ferrari, an Italian doctor with a relaxed attitude toward EPO. Such was the power of Armstrong's narrative, the greatest sports comeback story ever, that Lemond and Walsh and Betsy Andreu, the wife of an ex--Armstrong teammate who became one of his fiercest critics—were for years just voices in the wilderness.
Floyd Landis turned the tide. In a Wall Street Journal bombshell that ran under the headline BLOOD BROTHERS in July 2010, the 2006 Tour champion, who had been stripped of his title after tests showed elevated testosterone levels, spoke candidly of his use of performance-enhancing drugs while he was a U.S. Postal Service teammate of Armstrong's. Although others had said as much off the record, Landis was the first of Armstrong's teammates to break the squad's omerta and publicly accuse the Texan.
A Landis quote from the WSJ story stayed with me. Even after his damning revelations, Landis couldn't help giving Armstrong props: "He's a fighter. He's a bad-ass bicycle racer.... I don't in any way wish to take away from that."
Anyone who saw Armstrong gut his way through the 2003 Tour, his narrowest victory in that race; anyone who remembers how he crashed that year on the climb of Luz Ardiden, then remounted, overtook the lead group then rode through it; anyone who has taken a call from a miffed Armstrong after composing a story he didn't care for—all would agree with Landis:
He's a fighter.
Make that was a fighter.