Jeff Pearlman: Great sports cheaters are always the last to anticipate their downfall
One example: Barry Bonds was high-living, inaccessible, felled by a doping scandal, he says
He says Lance Armstrong now charged in doping, could be stripped of cycling triumphs
Pearlman: Armstrong, others hurt fans, other athletes; they are soon banished, forgotten
They are always the last to understand.
It’s weird, isn’t it, the way our greatest cheaters and liars go so far and so hard in their efforts to win and dominate and overcome that, en route, they fail to see the inevitable downfall that awaits?
Back in the early 2000s, when I was a baseball writer at Sports Illustrated, Barry Bonds treated everyone —teammates, coaches, opponents, fans, writers — as if they were specks of crud beneath his (regularly manicured) fingernails. He camped out in front of a wall of four lockers, had his own clubhouse videographer, his own clubhouse physical therapist, his own perky publicists. He was the greatest home run hitter who ever lived: a slugger who, well into his late 30s, was bashing 450-foot shots over the deepest of outfield walls.
Where is Barry Bonds today? Answer: Who the hell cares? His website is down. His cards can be had, straight up, in exchange for two Kirk McCaskills and a Sil Campusano. He will never be hired to work in the game, as either a broadcaster or coach. His records — in the minds of most fans — don’t count. He is invisible. Worse than invisible.
He is insignificant.
Which leads us to Lance Armstrong. In case you missed the news, Wednesday morning the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency filed new charges against the seven-time Tour de France winner, threatening to strip the cycling legend of his triumphs. According to the agency, blood samples taken from Armstrong in 2009 and 2010 are “fully consistent with blood manipulation including EPO use and/or blood transfusions.” The agency also accuses Armstrong of using and promoting the use of EPO (a blood booster), blood transfusions, testosterone, HGH and anti-inflammatory steroids. In an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Tyler Hamilton, Armstrong’s former teammate, said he witnessed the star using EPO on multiple occasions.
Armstrong, of course, denies all the charges. I don’t believe him. He says he is clean and innocent – just as Barry Bonds was clean and innocent, just as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Marion Jones and Shawne Merriman and every other too-good-to-possibly-be-true athletic freak was clean and innocent, too. He is a victim of the media. A victim of jealousy. A victim of haters. A victim of sport inconsistencies. Why, he’s passed 350 tests and, even if the testing system is a complete joke, well, hey, he passed.
What Lance Armstrong is allegedly doing – what all athletes in his shoes seem to do — is beyond damaging. Across the world, millions of people believe in Armstrong’s narrative. They love his wins, yes, but what drives them and inspires them is the way he faced cancer and battled back from a near-death experience. Young children in pediatric care have been relayed his story, have been told that one day, if you stay strong and fight and believe, you, too, can be just like Lance Armstrong.
Surely, somewhere along the way, Armstrong apparently convinced himself that there was no other way. As the common athletic thinking goes: If everyone else is cheating, I need to cheat, too. That logic, now pervasive throughout all levels of sport, has turned our athletic endeavors into fraudulent clown shows.
For every Bonds and McGwire and Roger Clemens, there were clean ballplayers being robbed of their greatness. I’ll never forget a conversation I once had with Sal Fasano, a journeyman catcher who spent his nine-team, 11-year big league career desperately trying to hold on to a job. We were chatting about all the catchers who were named in the Mitchell Report; all the men who loaded up, then stole the positions he was battling for.
“There’s an idea that everyone cheats,” Fasano said. “Well, I don’t, and I never have. For me, it’s about integrity. That’s what counts.”
Like Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong is the last to know where he is headed. We are already beginning to speak of him as we do Alf and Emmanuel Lewis and Small Wonder on one of those “I Love the ‘80s” shows. We’ll look back at his cycling reign and shrug, because it will be merely an illusion, an ugly period when people cheated to win, then faced a lifetime of banishment.
We will laugh. Then we will shrug. Then — nothingness.
Lance Armstrong will be invisible.
As he should be.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Pearlman.