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BENNER: Who believes Lance Armstrong?

September 1, 2012

Within moments of cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong’s announcement that he would no longer contest the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s relentless quest to strip him of his seven Tour de France titles, the social network Facebook came alive with “I told-you-he-was-a-cheater” diatribes.

I responded thusly: I still believe—and believe in—Lance Armstrong.

I may be hopelessly naïve. I may be, as someone suggested, Pollyanna-ish (won’t be the first time). I may be among the last holdouts waiting for someone to produce incontrovertible physical evidence against Armstrong rather than the hearsay of disgruntled former competitors.

After all, wasn’t Armstrong the subject of a two-year investigation by our own federal government that resulted in no charges filed?

At the very least, so long after the fact and Armstrong’s last Tour triumph in 2005, I simply have to ask the hierarchy at USADA: Isn’t it long past time to move on? Shouldn’t federally funded USADA put its time and resources to policing current athletes? What is to be gained by this belated witch hunt?

Let me be up front. I am not objective about Armstrong. I proudly wear a yellow Livestrong band around my left wrist. I knew Armstrong before he discovered he had testicular cancer, and I interviewed him at Indiana University Hospital in 1996 shortly after his cancer surgery. He has been an inspiration to me. He was an inspiration to my mother in her fight with cancer. He has been an inspiration to thousands around the world and has raised both awareness of testicular cancer and, through his foundation, a half-billion dollars for cancer research.

That should count for something. In fact, maybe it should count for everything.

Dr. Lawrence Einhorn feels the same way.

Einhorn is the IU School of Medicine oncologist who welcomed Armstrong into his office in October 1996. Six months earlier, Armstrong had noticed a growth on his testicle. For most of those six months, he had tried to ignore it. Now it was almost too late. The cancer had spread to his lymph nodes, his lungs and his brain. He was coughing up blood.

“He was a month from death when he came to us,” Einhorn recalled last week.

Einhorn, a pioneer in testicular cancer treatment, and colleague Dr. Craig Nichols, prescribed the chemotherapy, and Dr. Scott Shapiro performed the surgery that saved Armstrong.

Two days after his surgery, I was allowed to interview Armstrong. He was incredibly inspirational—there’s that word again—in his determination to survive, but I went home that night and told my wife I would be surprised if he lived to see Christmas.

Little could I or anyone else—besides Armstrong—imagine that, less than three years later, he would win the world’s most grueling athletic event, the Tour de France.

Einhorn communicates regularly with Armstrong. A few months ago, he attended Armstrong’s 40th birthday party in Vail, Colo. He, also, is not objective about Armstrong.

“This thing is absolutely insane, totally crazy,” Einhorn said. “I feel so sorry for him. It’s hard to know what the motivation is with [USADA]. I can see going after somebody when they’re actively competing in a sport, but why do it now? It’s just trying to bring down someone who is a true American hero who has done so much.

“Did he do it? I have no idea. That’s not something Lance and I discuss. But I’ve always told Lance from the very beginning that his legacy—even when he was a world-class athlete on the cover of Sports Illustrated—will be what he has done for the cancer community through his foundation.”

Such as saving lives.

“Thousands,” Einhorn said.

Because of Armstrong’s immense public profile, his foundation, his best-selling book “It’s Not About the Bike,” and his tireless advocacy for screening and detection, Einhorn said, “We have untold thousands of patients who now come in with early diagnosis of testes cancer. His influence has been off the charts.”

Einhorn cannot understand USADA’s dogged pursuit of Armstrong.

“It’s just sort of sickening,” he said. “You hate to see it happen to someone who is such a good person … and he is a good person. This doesn’t in any way change my admiration or respect for him.”

There are thousands who feel the same. Indeed, in the days after the USADA decision, donations to Armstrong’s foundation rose dramatically. He has ended his fight for due process, but his fight against cancer goes on. That, as Einhorn said, will be his legacy. God bless him.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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