The hero will be bloodied. He will fall. It will be a storybook without a happy ending. But I'll bet Lance Armstrong still gets lionized for trying.
Armstrong embodies a certain type of American exceptionalism, even when he's falling off a bike and falling out of contention at what's supposed to be his last Tour de France. After all, he's 38; he's not supposed to be in the Tour, much less contending, and that alone is supposed to wow. (Of the men with five or more Tour wins, none won one after the age of 31; Armstrong captured three.)
It's that persistence, that reinvention of the talented cyclist he was supposed to be before he was waylaid by ego and illness early in his career, and that essential goodness—helpfully reinforced by the potent and heartwarming message that cancer can be conquered—that gets Armstrong some of the most sympathetic coverage in sports. That really chafes some skeptics, but it unnerves me more than anything. In the sport more pockmarked by performance-enhancers than any other, we'll believe that Lance Armstrong is telling the truth because he's Lance Armstrong and accept him never failing a test as incontrovertible proof of innocence? Is his status as the lone clean American to find great success in cycling so sacred that we dismiss all suspicions as jealousy? Do we need to believe that badly?
Perhaps it's because what Armstrong means requires him to be essentially good. How could someone who has raised tens of millions of dollars for cancer patients and inspired millions of people be a fraud? How would we react to learning that Armstrong has been lying and cheating the entire time? To learning that Floyd Landis is cycling's truth-teller?
I don't know how we would. I'm not sure we'll ever have to, either. As Armstrong passes from being a cyclist to being an icon, though, his legacy will be chiseled and chipped at anew, and tributes that double as eulogies for greatness and dignity in sport will be authored. Some observers, surely, will doubt the truth of these accounts, but they will be in the vocal minority, easily dismissed, as Armstrong's heroism and drive are affirmed for a final time.
The fall and rise of Lance Armstrong is either one of the greatest sports stories ever told or one of the greatest sports myths ever sold. I'm not sure we'll ever truly know which. But it's safe to assume we'll assume the best.
This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.