Commentary

Surprising end for an epic fighter

Updated: August 24, 2012, 2:40 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

The world is altered this morning, even if the record books don't reflect that quite yet.

Lance Armstrong has abandoned. Essentially entered a plea of nolo contendere. Wheeled over to the side of the road, dismounted, and disappeared into the broom wagon.

It is, first and foremost, disorienting to see an athlete whose core identity always has been that of a fighter -- a headstrong, proud, aggressive, willful, shrewd, ferocious protagonist on and off the road -- turning his back and walking the other way.

Armstrong foreshadowed that tactic a few months ago in a Men's Journal magazine interview when he expressed fatigue at his perpetual status as quarry. It had the earmarks of a trial balloon, floated to gauge public reaction: What would happen if, for once, he tried passive resistance? What if he simply declined to acknowledge the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's sanctioning powers and authority? What if he declared the process hollow and his stature a matter for history to decide rather than submitting to what he characterized as a preordained ruling from a stacked arbitration panel?

He knows better than anyone that most people made up their minds long ago about whether he doped, and whether they care. He knows that many cycling fans and cancer survivors and lovers of a good story are uninterested in parsing the sustained tension between narrative and reality. Armstrong is not bidding for the undecided vote. He's trying to preserve and consolidate the faithful following he still has. He is cutting his losses by asserting that no one can ever really take away his wins.

Armstrong didn't go down without taking a shot, though.

A lobbyist for his Livestrong foundation visited Capitol Hill this summer and invoked the same themes about public priorities and the presumed weight of Armstrong's philanthropy that his camp consistently raised throughout a nearly two-year federal criminal investigation abruptly terminated in February.

Armstrong's lawyers filed a long-shot lawsuit in federal court that was initially rebuffed by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks because of its length and what the judge termed inappropriate digressions. The suit was promptly resubmitted, accepted for consideration and ultimately dismissed, albeit with scoldings from the judge -- a colorful verbal stylist -- for all parties, along with pointed questions about USADA's motives and timeline. The central reasoning in the ruling was simple, however. It reaffirmed the validity of the system in place for adjudicating cases such as Armstrong's and observed that denial of due process in any potential arbitration could not be determined before the fact.

The statement Armstrong released Thursday night, just a couple of hours before the administrative deadline set by USADA for him to make the binary choice between contesting and capitulating, took a familiar defiant tone. The language is strident. The duel is portrayed as a personal one between himself and USADA CEO Travis Tygart, as if they were tunneling side by side through throaty masses of fans in the last kilometers of an uphill finish in the Alps or Pyrenees.

That manifesto differs rather substantially from the other document released Thursday night by Armstrong's spokesman, Mark Fabiani, a letter addressed to USADA general counsel William Bock and signed by attorneys Tim Herman and Robert Luskin. The letter reasserts the contention that Armstrong is subject to no authority other than the UCI, cycling's international body. It seeks to prop open the door to another rabbit warren of alphabet-soup bureaucratic remedies and ends with a threat to hold USADA liable for its actions.

If enough is truly enough, as Armstrong so ardently stated, this constitutes a somewhat mixed message. The letter also omits any reference to the UCI's own vested interests in this case. USADA intended to present evidence of a cover-up of a positive test by Armstrong in 2001. Furthermore, vacating Armstrong's seven titles would leave the UCI with a stupendous statistical and credibility gap as regards the biggest -- and, for many casual travelers, the only -- bike race in the world.

From the 1996 Tour title won by Bjarne Riis of Denmark, who confessed several years ago to his own extensive doping, through the 2010 race result forfeited by Spain's Alberto Contador after a protracted legal fight over his positive test for clenbuterol, cycling has been saddled with a 15-year stretch during which all but one champion (Spain's Carlos Sastre in 2008) has been formally discredited in some way, even if some of those championships remain in place.

The ultimate resolution of race standings is just another red herring to trip over on the way to figuring out whether the truth is accessible. As many critics have correctly suggested, the majority of other men who populated the podiums in that era are suspect, as well, so what good would it do to reshuffle the standings and refit the yellow jerseys? Cycling in those years is rapidly approaching the point of no-there-there, unless we co-sign the cynical premise that doping was so endemic that the playing field was level anyway.

Yes, it is head-shaking to see Armstrong back away from a battle, even if it makes some sense from a risk/reward context. The information dump is not about to slow down, not with related cases still in the pipeline, witnesses (who themselves might face public scrutiny and sanctions) still standing by and a purportedly uber-revealing book from his former lieutenant, Tyler Hamilton, scheduled for publication in less than a month. Armstrong won't be able to control others as he once did with such skill as peloton boss, but he can endeavor to shape his message, and he surely will.

He probably is right to contend that his Tour titles will always exist in a virtual sense for many, if not on paper. The real penalty and the starkest shift in Armstrong's landscape is the lifetime ban from competition in, or even association with, the endurance events that consumed him and molded his public persona. Whether he can remain a vital force in his roles as cancer survivorship crusader and marketing rainmaker is something that will take years to play out. It's doubtful he will ever stand still. But it appears he'll have to slow down.

Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.