Lance Armstrong gives up fight against USADA, raising questions about his innocence

In the end, Lance Armstrong quit. And no matter how fiercely he writes his statements or fires rockets on Twitter or demands we continue to buy into the fantasy that in a world of doping cyclists he alone was clean and rode faster and stronger, he still quit on Thursday night.

By quitting, he let the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency say he was guilty, say his seven Tour de France championships were as fake as everything else in a dirty sport. Because if he was innocent, if there was some means to battle the organization with no legal power the way he had the U.S. Department of Justice, he would not be letting USADA try to yank the yellow jerseys from his closet.

No way if there’s even a hint of hope does Lance Armstrong let this happen to his name. He was always too proud, too defiant, too stubborn to give up. He beat cancer. He beat the federal government. He beat everything that came his way. He didn’t relent.

If there was a fight to still fight, he would have fought it.

Now we're burned by another fraud masquerading as a hero.

In a matter of months we have learned that college football’s winningest coach enabled a pedophile, the MVP of baseball's All-Star Game used testosterone and cycling's biggest star chose to no longer hold back the mountain of doping allegations against him. It's a sad few weeks when Joe Paterno's statue goes into storage and Melky Cabrera disappears from the pennant race and Lance Armstrong says "no mas." Suddenly, nothing seems sacred anymore.

Each brought hope and joy to a lot of people's worlds. Paterno inspired generations of football players to be better men. Cabrera gave San Francisco four wonderful months of baseball, and Armstrong made millions believe they could do anything.

Even the popular cycling analyst and blogger, Neil Browne, who once lost a job because he ran afoul of Armstrong, remembers his father dying a horrible death from cancer, proclaiming: "If Lance could beat this so can I."

"My father was a cyclist, he knew Lance was doping, he knew the drill but he didn't care," Browne said late Thursday. "Lance beat cancer."

It's impossible not to look at the sea of yellow bands and the sick who have climbed from deathbeds, and say Lance Armstrong hasn't made the world a better place for many.

But at the same time he sold a fairy tale. And he demanded we believe it. He fed it to us repeatedly while throwing everything he could find in the way of a darker truth that kept closing in. He could have continued to fight past Thursday. He could have gone through a hearing, and his accusers would have lined up before him. It's hard to believe the man who played everything to the end wouldn't take this chance, too. If he knocked away the federal government, why couldn't he have found a way to win again?

Yet what if something more sinister loomed? What if the men USADA says it had ready to testify against him had worse things to say than they saw Armstrong doping? What does that say about a legacy? Ultimately, we won’t know because they will never speak. But the problem with believing in Armstrong going forward is that his giving up on Thursday leaves the question: How tarnishing is what's left unsaid?

The irony is that Armstrong could have remained a hero. He could have been a saint, as well as a beacon of light to millions who never would have thought he had cheated throughout his career. All he had to do was stay retired.

[Related: USADA to strip Lance Armstrong of seven Tour de France titles]

But hubris got the best of him. It's the fatal flaw of driven men everywhere. He had to come back. He had to try France another time. And in doing so he reset the clock on the statute of limitations. He gave the federal government an opportunity to look through his life. If the government hadn't looked at Armstrong over the last two years it's hard to imagine USADA gathering the evidence to do what it is doing now.

He would have remained untainted. He would have remained a seven-time winner of the Tour de France.

Instead, he sent out a flimsy statement explaining why the man who never quit was suddenly quitting. "I refuse to participate in a process that is so one-sided and unfair," he wrote.

Somehow, that always seemed where Armstrong was best: when all looked bleak and nobody believed in him. By quitting, he sent a new message. One we’ve heard too many times in sports.

Sometimes a story is too good to be true.

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