When Lance Armstrong gave up fighting the doping allegations against him, most of us assumed that was the equivalent of a confession.
For the man we admired, in part, because he never quit, waving the white flag, was for many, evidence that he knew he couldn't win. Even those who saw the pursuit of the case against him, as he put it "an unconstitutional witch hunt," admitted they were disappointed and discouraged by the decision and what it seemed to imply.
I do not intend to use this column space to debate whether Lance is guilty or persecuted. My purpose is simply to point out that for most of us, it doesn't matter as much as we may think it does.
No need to cast stones.
No need to condemn him. No need to label him.
And maybe most importantly, there is no need to taint the work he did away from competitive cycling.
Even if you believe the worst allegations against him, it's OK to still be inspired by his toughness, by his generosity, by his philanthropy. Several of my friends said they feel betrayed by his decision, and one complained that she wished she'd never believed his constant denials.
Trusting others is not a flaw.
I once had a conversation with a friend who'd been betrayed by her husband. She was humiliated and heartbroken. In the wake of her marriage disintegrating around her, she asked me, "How could I be so foolish? I should have seen this coming. I feel so stupid."
I did not see her as someone who was duped or dumb. I saw her as someone who approached marriage as one should — with love and trust. It is not wrong to expect that in return.
"There is no shame in loving someone honestly," I told her. "It is not your fault that he chose to be dishonest. You should not feel stupid because there is no shame in trusting him to keep his commitments; there's no shame in believing he was a man capable of that and much more. Trusting other people and seeing the best in them is something to be proud of, not something of which you should be ashamed."
In the wake of Armstrong's shocking pronouncement that "enough was enough," I felt a little shame for admiring him. After sitting through a seminar in 2010 about how technology was finally advanced enough to detect the many ways in which athletes had found to chemically enhance their performance, I knew that at least some of the allegations that had dogged him much of his career were likely true.
Like most, I desperately wanted the allegations to be false.
As I discussed the surrender, the allegations and the aftermath with friends, many of whom are cyclists, I have decided that for me, it doesn't matter if he cheated. I have always admired his work on behalf of cancer patients far more than his athletic accomplishments.
Unlike some other famous athletes who've been unmasked as cheaters, Armstrong took the fame winning seven Tours de France gave him and used it to raise half a billion dollars for cancer research. He saved lives, eased the stigma of a horrific disease and brought comfort to millions.
More than winning one of the world's toughest bike races after beating cancer, his efforts to set up the LIVESTRONG Foundation and help other like-minded efforts brought hope, inspiration and relief to the sick and suffering.
Two years ago, I spent three days with a group of men who were able to attend a fly-fishing retreat in part thanks to a grant from the LIVESTRONG Foundation. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life.
These men had a weekend to be in the company and comfort of other men struggling with the ways in which their bodies - and their lives - were being ravaged by cancer. For a few days, they looked into the eyes of people who really understood the fear of leaving their families without fathers, the inhumanity of cancer treatment, the emasculation of the disease and the side effects of its brutal treatments.
For a few days, they weren't just sick people. They were fishermen worried about which lure to use, getting a picture of those big catches, and swapping stories of the monsters they couldn't land. In other words, they did what normal people did - they enjoyed life.
Four of the men on that fishing trip have since died. But without the foundation that Armstrong started, the foundation his image fueled, those men may not have had that weekend of fishing and friendship.
Armstrong may be like many other athletes who will do anything to win, even cheat. But he is also a man who understands the desperate fear and the maddening helplessness that cancer patients and their families feel. As admirable as his athletic efforts were, I have always viewed his endeavors on behalf of the LIVESTRONG Foundation as his greatest achievement.19 comments on this story
So while it's OK to feel betrayed, to feel disappointed and to wonder why every athlete worth admiring seems to let us down in the end, it's important to remember that like all of us, he is human.
He has strengths; he has flaws.
I wished he'd done some things differently. I wish he'd issued a different statement. I wish this story didn't end with so much ambiguity.
My disappointment, however, does not change how I feel about the way he used his fame. And just like my friend and those fishermen, we get to keep the inspiration, the affection and the admiration his efforts offered all of us.
There is no shame in that.