We're not sure which is more disappointing: the hard evidence the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency says it has against cyclist Lance Armstrong and his decision not to contest those charges, or the way so few people seem surprised by the prospects of another athletic hero being tarnished.
The disappointment stems not so much from the need for genuine heroes in the athletic world, but from the need for genuine heroes in all walks of life who place integrity and fair play above other considerations, especially money and fame. The young people of the world — themselves vulnerable in a world dominated by people older and more powerful than they — need such examples. They need assurances that success in life hinges on things within their grasp — honest effort and hard work — and not on their ability to secure unfair advantages.
The athletic world has seen its share of heroes fall in recent years. Baseball has been riddled by accusations and admissions of steroid use. Former Olympic runner Marion Jones had to give up her medals and serve time in jail. The unfortunate result has been that virtually any major athletic achievement immediately is tainted by suspicion.
Armstrong's case is particularly compelling because he overcame cancer to become a world-class athlete. His victories were seen as inspirational for people undergoing physical challenges. If he tarnished that record through dangerous drugs that might harm his health, the tragedy becomes doubly distressing.
Armstrong still professes his innocence. His decision not to contest the charges against him in arbitration, however, casts doubt on his claims. The USADA says it has strong evidence he used illegal substances and encouraged teammates to do the same. Ten former teammates reportedly were ready to testify against him.
Armstrong may well have decided that contesting the charges would have posed a never-ending battle against his relentless critics. The reason that seems unlikely, however, is that his decision now costs him his record seven Tour de France titles and his legacy as one of the greatest athletes of his era.
Cases such as these matter because of the tremendous influence high-profile athletes have on aspiring athletes in high school, or even younger. Sports long have been considered worthwhile because of their close association to virtues. These virtues range from hard work and fair play to the ability to be gracious in victory or defeat, and to respect opponents. An athlete who learns to subjugate winning to these virtues has gained a valuable character trait that will serve him or her well in all walks of life.
Performance-enhancing drugs insult these notions and render sporting competitions meaningless. They also insult the legitimate medical purposes for most of these abused substances, and the patients who rely on them.
Somehow, those virtues must be re-enthroned in all athletic pursuits.