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Bicycle theif?

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Lance Armstrong, the cancer survivor and champion cyclist merge. One is not independent of the other. Livestrong has grown with the legend of the toughest cyclist of all-time. Is it the reason why the world is willing to overlook irrefutable allegations of drug use by the man?

Some 48-hours after announcing his decision not to fight the charges of the US Anti-Doping Agency, champion cyclist Lance Armstrong was beaten to second place by 16-year-old Keegan Swirbul in a scenic 36-mile mountain race in Aspen, Colorado. Swirbul won the race riding on one gear, leaving the 40-year-old veteran trailing by nearly five minutes. Later, when the teenager was asked why he wanted to win so bad, he replied: "To beat the seven-time Tour de France champ. " No matter what the powers that be decide, to fans such as the tough-riding Swirbul, Armstrong will always be the record-breaking winner of one of the most gruelling of sporting events. After a long-standing duel with the anti-doping agency, Armstrong said last week that he would no longer challenge the USADA's allegations against him, bringing down the fortress that carefully preserved his path-breaking achievements as a professional cyclist. Armstrong, one of the best known athletes of his generation, who raised in excess of $500 million for cancer awareness and research, stands to lose his seven Tour titles and the bronze medal he won at the 2000 Olympics. The anti-doping body - taking the American's decision as an admission of guilt - has threatened to clean out his trophy cabinet. The lean, compactly-built rider has repeatedly slammed the investigation process, stressing that he had cleared hundreds of dope tests both in and out of competition. He also pointed out that charges came without a shred of physical evidence with the agency basing their case on supporting evidence of more than ten eyewitnesses.

Is the man who refused to back-off from his fight against the dreaded disease but has taken his leg off the pedal in the battle that questions not just his integrity, but the very ideals that govern sport, any less of a hero to the masses today? Do the colours that cover the cancer survivor and champion cyclist blur at the edges? Are the lines smudged? Do the pictures merge? How does the public view a sporting hero? Do we judge him by different standards than we do politicians, movie stars and other public figures?

Dr PSM Chandran, president of the Indian Federation of Sports Medicine, worries that the obsession or 'witchhunt' by anti-doping agencies against Armstrong is tarnishing the image of sport as an institution. Dr Chandran said the World Anti-Doping Agency has arrived at a certain code where they clearly state that if an athlete is taking performance enhancing drugs and is caught in the process of testing he can be banned. "Nobody questions that because that is the code, " he said, "but now because you don't have any positive tests to go with, you bring in eye-witnesses, who say they've seen Armstrong cheat. What's the next step then? The least you can do is play by the rules you coined.

"Armstrong is a special athlete, he has not just won many races, he has beaten cancer and if in the course of that journey, to rebuild his body, he has taken medications that may have helped him improve his performance as a professional cyclist then it should've showed up in the testing procedure. If it hasn't, but you still think he has cheated, then there's something wrong with your procedure. "

India's superstar cricketer Yuvraj Singh, who has taken the Armstrong route to fighting the killer 'C', said: "Lance continues to be my hero. As a cancer survivor, I know it is difficult to come back and perform, he has done that. I don't know how they banned him, but he will always be an inspiration to me. Whatever the outcome of the case, he will be my hero. "

Nandan Kamath, a Harvard Law School graduate, who engages in a boutique practice on sports and intellectual property law, said it is the age of communication, where the celebrity and fan is in direct contact, there is no intermediary in this process because of which there's less dependency. Kamath said: "Armstrong takes a decision one minute and he's on Twitter the next explaining it to his fans. Fans are able to connect with the man who is above all else a survivor. Whatever he has achieved from 1999 to 2005 is his, you can't take that away from him, coming back from cancer and going on to win not just one, but seven Tours, it's a hell of an achievement. Fans see it, understand it. I don't think they're disconnected from it. "

Interestingly, a little after Armstrong announced his decision not to challenge USADA's allegations, donations to his cancer foundation tripled to 937 from 313 the day before. In all, the donations to Livestrong totaled to about $75, 000. A newspaper user poll revealed that 57 per cent of voters did not believe Armstrong used performanceenhancing drugs. Corporate sponsors - Nike, Anheuser-Busch and sunglasses maker Oakley - have pledged continued support. Johnson Health Tech, which licenses the Livestrong brand, also said it's sticking by the foundation. The home of Major League Soccer club Sporting Kansas City, which has promised to donate $7. 5 million in stadium revenues to Armstrong's foundation over six years, will continue to be called Livestrong Sporting Park.

Nishant Arora, who manages Yuvraj and heads the superstar cricketer's 'You We Can' charity foundation, traveled to Austin, Texas to have a look at the American's Livestrong Foundation. He said: "Primarily, Lance is a cancer survivor. I don't know about the case or the accusations so it won't be right to comment on that. But look at the work his foundation has done, the thousands of lives they touch everyday. He has raised more than $500 million for cancer research and awareness and that to me tops any cycling race he has won. "

While applauding Armstrong's achievements, brand guru Harish Bijoor explained that fans often had unrealistic expectations of champion athletes in comparison to matinee idols and rockstars. He said that fans tend to put athletes on a higher pedestal whereas with movie stars or the political class they're more accepting of flaws and failures. He explained: "Sometimes in the arts, there's a blurring of lines. When an actor plays a particular role, you tend to associate him with that role which may be far removed from reality. That's not the case with sport - it is out there and very definite. The thing about the public or fans is that they are both cruel and fickle. In the case of Armstrong, what he has achieved outside his sport is unbelievable, but I'm not sure how much of that will hold in the long run if he is stripped of his titles and declared a drug cheat. He may get a lot of support to begin with, but this is a long race, a marathon. Drugs is a serious issue and it can't be sidetracked. Armstrong will always be a cancer survivor, no one can take that away from him, drugs or no drugs, but a record-breaking cyclist?"

In Armstrong the achiever, the cancer survivor and champion cyclist merge, one is not independent of the other. Livestrong has grown with the legend of the toughest cyclist of all-time. One without the other would be half-way from home.

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