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Livestrong or Livewrong?

Is Lance Armstrong really so gifted that he is able to outperform other talented and dedicated cyclists even as they are fortifying their own cardiovascular systems with pharmaceuticals?
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And now there is Contador.

The Tour de France winner has apparently failed a drug test that was conducted during one of the days he was riding to victory in July. Contador is reported to have tested positive for a minute amount of a substance named clenbuterol, which is said to reduce fat, increase muscle mass, and assist breathing. (Where does one apply for a prescription?)

Everything this drug does would be an advantage to someone trying to not only survive but also win the most difficult endurance contest humans have ever devised. Clenbuterol, given to cattle, also improves the quality of beef. In a news conference, that's actually how Contador said he got the banned substance in his blood. He claims a friend brought steaks over from Spain when the team chef complained about meat at the hotel where the riders were staying. According to Contador, the clenbuterol must have been in his food.

That would be good if it were true. But recent Tour history indicates we are heading for another disappointment and a fallen hero. The names of the deniers are too many to list but they range from Floyd Landis to Tyler Hamilton and the lesser riders that are compelled to seek an advantage to either maintain the 34 mile-per-hour pace or fall behind; hit 70 homers or be just another slugger.

And then there is Lance.

Armstrong's supporters believe he never, not once, never ever, cheated. Unfortunately, the behavior of others during Lance's ascent to the top of the cycling world has made his achievements even more improbable in the rarified world of endurance sports. The peak of the doping era was from the late 1990s into the middle part of the current decade and Lance excelled at a time when cheating was widespread. Is it fair to question his success? Can a non-doper beat all of those dope heads?

There is some evidence to suggest Armstrong is a bit of a genetic mutant. Several reports indicate that his ability to ingest and process oxygen, which is measured through a test called VO2 uptake, is far beyond normal. His work ethic is also legendary. Lesser athletes miss workouts, take an unscheduled day off, stay up late, have one beer too many; Armstrong did not have that reputation. His story is one of singular focus and the science of conditioning. He and his trainers, especially the estimable Chris Carmichael, understood exertion, recovery, food, and peaking. Armstrong's was the most calculated training program possibly ever designed for an endurance sport.

But is he really so gifted that he is able to outperform other talented and dedicated cyclists even as they are fortifying their own cardiovascular systems with pharmaceuticals? That is the question that turns Lance Armstrong into a suspect for investigators like Jeff Novitzky, the federal agent who built the case against baseball slugger Barry Bonds. Whatever his motivation, Novitzky appears good at his job and that is undoubtedly unsettling for Team Livestrong.

Novitzky, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigator, is concentrating partially on an event that is alleged to have occurred in the hospital when Lance was being treated for cancer. An Armstrong teammate, Frankie Andreu, who does commentary on the Tour de France for the Versus Network, and his wife, Betsy, supposedly heard Lance tell a doctor that he used performance-enhancing drugs. The question is one that likely would have had to be asked during the course of developing a chemotherapy protocol for a recovering cancer patient. Armstrong has denied the allegations but Andreu later acknowledged that he doped up when he was riding with Lance on the U.S. Postal Service team. Stories have also recently been published to suggest that there was widespread doping on the Postal team and bikes were sold to pay for drugs, which, if true, turns into the kind of fraud and federal crime that could destroy the reputation and career of Armstrong. Novitzky also has audiotapes of phone calls made to Betsy Andreu by an Armstrong friend that worked for Oakley sunglasses. They are surprisingly vitriolic and might have an impact on grand jurors hearing the case in Los Angeles.

These yarns, however, are either little more than internecine squabbles among gifted and jealous athletes or they are the unraveling of one of the greatest sports frauds since the Black Sox baseball scandal in 1919. No one even seems willing to contemplate the notion that Lance Armstrong might be a fraud. And what if he is? Is it necessary, at this point, to take him down and is it worth the tax dollars expended in this investigation? There ought to be some way to balance the good done by the Livestrong Foundation against whatever might be the outcome of an investigation and a trial. No one is suggesting we let a cheater be a hero or get away with a sham but where is this taking our culture?

I met Lance once when I did an interview with him after his first Tour de France win. He was abrupt and seemed not to want to be bothered with a TV crew, as he got ready to take off on a training ride. Cordiality and small talk did not seem to be a part of his portfolio. His answers were matter of fact and he did not appear to have any sense of wonder about what he had just accomplished. The man was all business. Lance wanted to ride and we were in his way so we stepped aside.

But Jeff Novitzky will not.