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STEVE DeSHAZO: Armstrong admission isn’t the end of doping or dopes

HIS OPRAH mea culpa won’t bring back Lance Armstrong’s seven stripped Tour de France titles, and few people likely have changed their opinion of him. He’s either an inspirational cancer-beating, fundraising hero or sports’ biggest fraud.

Still, the fact that Armstrong finally fessed up to using performance-enhancing drugs is the latest installment of a trend that suggests the public’s tolerance for cheating is wearing thin.

Last week, baseball’s Hall of Fame voters declined to elect anyone to the shrine for the first time since 1996.

That’s no small development, considering the eligible candidates included Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro—former stars whose numbers would make them locks for Cooperstown if not for their connection to steroids.

After spending millions of taxpayer dollars on investigations and prosecutions, the Feds couldn’t prove in court that Bonds or Clemens cheated. But the writers exacted their vengeance, small though it may be.

The very next day, Major League Baseball announced it will begin in-season testing for Human Growth Hormone in 2013. To this point, the only HGH testing has been done during the off-season, when players knew it was coming. But the usually stubborn players’ union signed off on the new tests.

As with Armstrong’s confession, it doesn’t solve everything. But it’s a start. Experts believe baseball’s breakthrough may put pressure on the NFL Players Association to follow suit in a sport where most of the players exhibit superhuman size, strength and speed.

No one believes it will mark the end of cheating—not while the chemists always seem to be two steps ahead of the testers.

Does it mean, though, that we’re becoming more intolerant of cheating? That probably varies from fan to fan. But clearly, it’s a good sign.

Most of us (non-pitchers, at least) like to see baseball players hit tape-measure home runs. We root for world records in track and swimming, and big collisions in football are a guilty pleasure for many.

Sure, we’d like to believe the playing field is level. But sports is entertainment. And a generation that has grown up with computer-generated special effects in movies and video games suspended its disbelief long ago.

Many believe that if an athlete is willing to accept the medical risks that come with steroids—liver damage, higher blood pressure and cholesterol, hair loss and sexual side effects among them—then it’s his or her business.

Besides, in sports like cycling, we already knew that doping is (or was) rampant. Only the most loyal or gullible of fans really believed Armstrong was clean.

Former Orange County resident Matt DeCanio was a professional cyclist who enjoyed success at an early age, but never made it to the Tour de France. He admitted trying the performance enhancer EPO and served a two-year ban for it.

“I don’t believe anybody’s clean [in cycling],” DeCanio said in 2005. “I think it’s possible to win the Tour de France clean, but it would take a hell of an individual—a miracle child.”

Time has proven DeCanio right. But how many Americans really cared whether Armstrong’s reputation was a myth? He raised millions for cancer research and inspired countless cancer victims to fight the disease, so he reached hero status in the states. He was treated with far more contempt and suspicion in Europe, where cycling is far more popular.

Armstrong likely came to the conclusion that his best shot was to come clean to America’s most forgiving interviewer. And many Americans would be likely to forgive Armstrong—if not for the lives he trashed in his quest to preserve his legacy.

He ruined the business of Greg LeMond—now the only American to officially win the Tour—for accusing him of cheating.

He savaged Betsy Andreu, the wife of a former teammate, after she testified that Armstrong admitted to doping in a hospital room. Armstrong called her “vindictive, bitter, vengeful and jealous.”

He portrayed Emma O’Reilly a prostitute with a drinking problem after the former Tour massage therapist testified about rampant doping in cycling.

And who knows where the money came from in Armstrong’s decade-long strenuous legal defense of his reputation? Did people buy wristbands and donate to Livestrong Foundation, only to see the funds go to his lawyers?

If we’ve learned anything in sports’ steroids era, it’s that it’s easier to catch someone for lying than for cheating. Maybe that’s why Armstrong chose Oprah as his confessor—to try to rehab his reputation.

Unlike his days on the bike, he’ll likely never catch up. And that offers a glimmer of hope that we’re finally fed up with the nonsense.

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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