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Lance Armstrong: A drug cheat?

With seven Tour de France titles, Lance Armstrong is arguably the greatest cyclist ever. But after controversial claims from ex-teammates, Liam Quinn says it's tough to believe Armstrong was the clean-cut athlete cycling fans came to love and know.

Lance Armstrong is undoubtedly the biggest name in the history of cycling.

His success is unmatched. He  won a record seven Tour de France titles, the 2001 Tour de Suisse, the 1998 Tour de Luxembourg, the 1993 World Cycling Championship and an Olympic Bronze Medal.

However the 39-year-old is also one of the most polarizing and contentious figures in all of sport.

Since winning his first Tour de France in 1999, Armstrong has constantly been the subject of doping allegations. In the face of all accusations though, he has always maintained he has never taken performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), pointing to the fact he has never failed a drug test.

It had always appeared conceivable Armstrong was clean. In a sport that had long suffered as a result of its athletes cheating, he was always the exception to the rule.

However, revelations stemming from an interview given by Armstrong’s former teammate Tyler Hamilton now make the champion’s constant denials harder to believe.

In his own confessional to CBS’ 60 Minutes, Hamilton said he had witnessed Armstrong use performance-enhancing drugs, including the banned blood-booster erythropoietin (EPO) in 1999 to help prepare for the Tour de France. CBS also reported another of Armstrong’s former teammates – George Hincapie – admitted he and Armstrong had supplied each other with the EPO and also discussed using testosterone – another banned substance – to prepare for races.

Throughout all the doping claims he dogged in his career, Armstrong always presented himself as the model athlete. He has portrayed himself in absolute contrast to the stereotypical image of the drug-fuelled cyclist. That depiction makes Hamilton’s accusations even more damaging.

Hamilton painted Armstrong as manipulative and deceitful. According to him, Armstrong was willing to cheat in order to win and then fraudulently threw money at the problems to make them disappear. He also details a testing cover-up before the 2001 Tour de Suisse, claiming Armstrong had told him he had failed a drug test before the event. The UCI – cycling’s governing body – denied any such cover-up.

Hamilton’s allegations corroborate claims made by Floyd Landis – another former teammate of Armstrong – last year as the investigation into Armstrong’s connection with a doping operation began.

Landis suggested after the initial test was taken, the director of the Swiss lab that conducted the test met with Armstrong and his team manager, Johan Bruyneel, under orders from the UCI. Around the time of this alleged meeting, Armstrong donated US$25,000 to UCI and another US$100,000 three years later. Hamilton stated a ’relaxed’ Armstrong bragged about being able to make the problem ‘go away’.

Hardly the actions of the ideal athlete.

Cycling is a sport crippled by the rampant use of performance enhancing drugs and it was at its greatest throughout Armstrong’s era. During the seven-year span that saw Armstrong claim his seven Tour de France titles, the evidence was damning. Out of all the cyclists who finished on the podium with Armstrong, only one wasn’t implicated for doping at some point.

Since Armstrong’s retirement, four of the five Tour de France winners have been linked to PEDs. Landis was stripped of his 2006 title after being found guilty of doping, while Spaniard Alberto Contador – who won three of the five Tours since 2006 – is currently embroiled in a doping controversy. The signs have long been there for everyone to see.

So why do we think Armstrong was clean? Simply because he was different to every other cyclist.

We viewed Armstrong as an altered state in comparison to the rest of the cycling fraternity. He accepted his position as a hero, a man who conquered cancer and the French Pyrenees. He became the face of a multitude of global causes, from eliminating poverty and curing AIDS to empowering youth through the Tony Hawk Foundation.

Now that has become a problem for Armstrong. He has backed himself into a corner. He can’t come clean. He can’t call a news conference and confirm all the allegations, and then continue to try and right the wrongs of the world.

Armstrong is one of two things: an inspirational hero who has been unfairly persecuted and wrongly targeted, or a drug cheat, a fraud and the epitome of all that is wrong with sport.

Armstrong won plenty of accolades and medals during his career. But was the image he created of himself nothing more than a fabrication?

You think what you want, but the evidence against Armstrong is mounting.

Liam Quinn is a first-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University.

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