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Saturday, Oct 20 2012 10:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Summoning forgiveness for Armstrong

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    Robert Price

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Lance Armstrong rose to the top of the sporting world fueled by a unique concoction: hard work and immense talent but also narcissism, a talent for intimidation and unmitigated gall. If U.S. anti-doping authorities are correct -- and their evidence is said to be incontrovertible -- other ingredients played a role in his success, too.

Armstrong asserted himself as professional cycling's drug warlord. If you were a part of his world, you played by his tyrannical rules: Participate or get out of the way. And virtually everyone on Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team, coerced or not, participated.

Armstrong gained fame, wealth and admiration for superhuman exploits that we now know were literally superhuman. And all the while he indignantly brushed aside whispers (and sometimes shouts) that his fortress was built on performance-enhancing drugs and illicit techniques. In a 2001 television commercial for Nike, Armstrong declared: "Everybody wants to know what I'm on. What am I on? I'm on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?"

Now that fortress of insulated denial is in ruins and Armstrong is alone. His sponsors have deserted him and he has been forced to walk away from the one last, unimpeachably good thing he ever created: his cancer-fighting Livestrong Foundation.

If the International Cycling Union accepts the findings of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that Armstrong cheated -- the announcement is due Monday -- Armstrong, a seven-time Tour de France winner, will have lost his last friend.

Forgiveness can be a powerful, fulfilling act when it's a person-to-person transaction, but people tend to be hard on fallen heroes and institutions. Ask Pete Rose about that. Or Barry Bonds. Or Michael Vick.

But we love a good story of redemption, too, and Lance Armstrong's humiliation has some of the earmarks: stellar heights and mortifying lows -- which may not yet have even hit bottom.

Armstrong has only one recourse now. Abject, groveling apology. He'll need to maintain some semblance of dignity, of course, but his bluster and denial no longer hold water.

Armstrong fooled us all because we wanted to be fooled into believing that a man so far past his physical prime could, by sheer will and determination, stave off age and, by extension, triumph over death. Not just "live strong" but live forever. Now that he has proved himself mortal -- and a grievously flawed mortal at that -- we're angry because it just proves again that we are mortal, too. That's a lot to ask forgiveness for. But Armstrong must because he can still do good. He can become a force for honesty in sports. Yes, that might seem like a tough pill now -- a pill we'd be asked to swallow with a tall glass of disingenuous convenience.

But Armstrong can come back with discipline, commitment and a plan -- things he is fully capable of putting together. First, he has to step out of the shadows and come clean. Expose the competitive landscape, of course: The international cycling community is rife with cheaters. Armstrong believed the only way he could succeed was by flaunting the rules, and he was right. But in the broader view he was wrong, and he must admit it. People understand that humans are fallible, even (especially?) the heroes and demigods of sport.

Second, give back. Criminals can become advisers to law enforcement agencies, and that option could one day become available to Armstrong.

Is there a book deal in this transformation, too? As Pete Rose might say, you bet there is. But this story ends well only if Armstrong donates every dime of the proceeds to Livestrong. Only then will we know if we've been fooled again.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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