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What does the fall of Lance Armstrong say about us?

Published: Friday, Aug. 24 2012 8:36 p.m. MDT

Virginia Gowski starts her ride up Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Virginia Gowski starts her ride up Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — After news broke Thursday that cyclist Lance Armstrong was ending his fight against doping accusations, local cyclists and Armstrong fans were lamenting the fall of an international star.

Others simply said it was another testament to a troubling reality in cycling and professional sports in general: everybody cheats, some get caught.

It's a generalization, but speaks to the effort to find understanding or meaning in the parade of fallen stars accused of cheating, which this month also included Major League Baseball's batting leader, Melky Cabrera of the San Francisco Giants, and a pitcher for the Oakland A's in the steroid-swollen Bay Area.

Michael Timberlake, who teaches sociology of sports at the University of Utah, said that Armstrong is considered a hero by many, including children. But he said research shows children to be more affected by the person pouring the milk than the face staring back on the Wheaties box.

Preston Jacobsen, left, manager at Guthrie Bicycle, talks with Paco Aguilar as Paco looks at a bike in Salt Lake City, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Preston Jacobsen, left, manager at Guthrie Bicycle, talks with Paco Aguilar as Paco looks at a bike in Salt Lake City, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

"Kids' role models are usually closer to them, like their parents, fathers and brothers," he said.

Timberlake said that athletes, like people in general, are constantly forced to deal with competing pressures. He said an example in sports is the separation between winning and sportsmanship, which are both admired, and leads to questionable behavior like "flopping" in basketball or "diving" in soccer.

"Technically, that's not good sportsmanship, but it's come to be a norm" Timberlake said. "You have different values in sports and anything you do, and they compete sometimes."

Unlike sports, Timberlake said the rules in regular life are more informal and are based on shared understanding of what actions are right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate or civil and uncivil.

Sara VanKlooster, right, and Jamie White, climb Emigration Canyon, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Sara VanKlooster, right, and Jamie White, climb Emigration Canyon, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

In some cases there are laws to enforce behavior, but often an individual will simply act outside of accepted norms in order to succeed in business, politics or polite society, which results in informal sanctions from the people around them.

"There's strong societal pressures toward conformity," he said.

The norm in cycling has been performance-enhancing drug use, practiced by some of the sport's biggest stars. Does that make it a norm and therefore acceptable to those trying to attain that level of performance?

"The poor guy really has been hammered," Virginia Gowski said of Armstrong, who not only capitalized financially, but is a man who overcame cancer and turned athletic success into Livestrong, benefiting cancer research to the tune of millions of dollars. "If I were him I probably would have given up as well."

Preston Jacobsen, manager at Guthrie Bicycle, talks about Lance Armstrong in Salt Lake City, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Preston Jacobsen, manager at Guthrie Bicycle, talks about Lance Armstrong in Salt Lake City, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

Gowski, a Salt Lake mother of three, said her children are too young to be aware of the controversy but it creates an opportunity for parents to discuss the values of fair play, sportsmanship and honesty with their families.

"I think it's a parent's job to teach a lesson with this kind of experience," she said. "Talk about ethics and talk about competition and what's important."

Jamie White, who was biking up Emigration Canyon on Friday, said that in his mind, the issue of doping and performance enhancement through drug use is more of a gray area than other forms of cheating.

He said athletes commonly use diet or vitamin supplements in an effort to gain a competitive edge and the rules of what is and what is not allowed are constantly evolving. Caffeine, for example, was prohibited for cyclists until 2004, according to the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Virginia Gowski rides up Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Virginia Gowski rides up Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

"I'm not one to condemn," White said. "All those guys dope and it made for some great racing."

In a statement to the Associated Press, Armstrong called the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's investigation an "unconstitutional witch hunt." He said he had ultimately grown weary of fighting the allegations against him, and continues to proclaim his innocence.

"I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999," he said. "The toll this has taken on my family and my work for our foundation and on me leads me to where I am today — finished with this nonsense."

Gowski said it's unfortunate that after Armstrong's battles with cancer, his record seven Tour De France titles and his work with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, that his legacy will be that of a cheater.

Sara VanKlooster cycles in Emigration Canyon, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Sara VanKlooster cycles in Emigration Canyon, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

"He was a real hero for people, cancer survivors or not, and that's what's going to be tainted," she said.

At Guthrie Bicycle in Sugar House, both staff and customers said they weren't surprised by Armstrong's announcement. They also expressed skepticism over USADA's decision to strip Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles, considering his record of being cleared by pre-race doping tests and because of the widespread use of illegal performance enhancements in professional cycling.

"I do believe he probably did (dope), just like everyone else," Guthrie Bicycle manager Preston Jacobsen said. "Pro sports in general have an issue."

But Mark Zimbelman, a professor of accounting at BYU who blogs about fraud and ethics, said that just because something is widespread doesn't make it right. He said that not going after dopers sends the wrong message to the next generation of cyclists.

Jamie White cycles in Emigration Canyon, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Jamie White cycles in Emigration Canyon, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

"This is cheating, it was against the rules," he said. "It's a real problem and that's why a lot of people are happy that USADA is doing this."

Zimbelman said the idea of doing whatever is necessary to win is not unique to sports, but permeates business, politics and other aspects of life.

"It's all over," he said.

Timberlake hesitated to ascribe the Armstrong scandal — and some cyclists' relative indifference to it — to a Machiavellian culture in America. He said cycling is more esoteric than basketball, baseball or football, where the average American has some understanding of game play, and that the culture of special diets and supplements follows the sport back to its European roots.

Grady Goddard of Guthrie Bicycle gives his thoughts about Lance Armstrong during an interview in Salt Lake City, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Grady Goddard of Guthrie Bicycle gives his thoughts about Lance Armstrong during an interview in Salt Lake City, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

"I don't think it's an American thing," he said. "Neither the use of (doping) nor the writing off of it."

The reaction to Armstrong, then is left to individuals to work through and perhaps brings only another question, rather than resolution: Who is cheating, Armstrong or USADA, the agency that implicated him?

Jefferey C. Garvey, vice chairman and founding chairman of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, left his opinion on the Livestrong website Friday, in support of the cyclist whose cause he champions:

“Faced with a biased process whose outcome seems predetermined, Lance chose to put his family and his foundation first and we support his decision."

Gleed Toombes rides Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Gleed Toombes rides Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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