It was Lance Armstrong, the great cyclist who was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned from the sport for life for using illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
I'm not even a cyclist, just a guy who occasionally rides a bike and became an Armstrong fan when he overcame cancer and won the only bicycle race that gets any television time. A few years ago, I hosted a visitor to Memphis from India. Just before he flew home, he asked me to do one thing: take him some place where he could buy a yellow Livestrong wrist band in honor of Lance Armstrong.
Armstrong made fans of non-fans and believers of professional skeptics. I read his book, watched his press conferences, and argued with friends who called him a doper. I flipped positions after I saw the interviews with rival pros who finally broke down and said that they and Armstrong had cheated.
That made the story sleazier but no less interesting. If everyone else was doping, then was Armstrong, as he surely believes to this day, not still the champ? How much of an edge does the blood-booster erythropoietin, known as EPO, give you? Would it work for ordinary athletes in other sports? A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times did a story about a 33-year-old competitive runner who was not quite world-class but still good enough to win nearly $40,000 in prize money in more than 75 cherry-picked races. He 'fessed up to using EPO he bought in Tijuana.
I wondered how competitive athletes in Memphis felt about Armstrong's story.
"I've known Armstrong since he was a teenager and have been in races with him," said Joe Royer, founder of the Outdoors Inc. Cyclocross Championship. "I always was suspicious of him. I'm disappointed, because he would have had a great career anyway."
He thinks the cover-up was aided by Armstrong's commanding personality. "If he rode off a cliff, then his team would ride off a cliff," Royer said.
As for ordinary athletes, "Yes," Royer said, "they could get a boost, and it's unfortunate that a great time could arouse suspicion. I feel terrible about that."
Paul Rubin, past president of the Memphis Hightailers Bicycle Club, agreed that Armstrong didn't have to cheat.
"He was a hero and role model," Rubin said.
But Rubin lost faith after fellow cycling pros accused Armstrong of doping. He recalled the time seven years ago when a semi-pro rider spoke to the Hightailers and was asked about dope.
"They all cheat," the speaker said.
Lisa Overall, president of the Memphis Runners Track Club, said there are still "a lot of things we don't know" about the evidence against Armstrong. An attorney, Overall noted that some of the accusations come from admitted dopers.
"It seems strange to me that he could be tested that rigorously and only have one positive test," she said.
The St. Jude Memphis Marathon coming up in December offers a total of $2,000 in prize money. The registration form says participants may be subject to formal drug testing.
Kevin Adams, who rides in regional bicycle races and completed a 16-day solo kayak trip on the Mississippi River, says competitive athletes are always looking for an edge. Armstrong, he says, is still "an amazing athlete" and was not the only one doping.
"I absolutely believed him," he said. "My issue now is that he continued to lie."
Peter Lebedevs, triathlete and director of the professional tennis tournament at the Racquet Club, "wanted to believe Armstrong, but the sport was so rife with it that it was hard to believe he wasn't involved."
Tennis has had a rigorous drug-testing program for years. Tournaments are randomly selected, and Memphis was chosen twice in the last four years, Lebedevs said. No one flunked.
A teaching pro himself, Lebedevs believes ordinary athletes could probably get stronger and faster but that drugs would not improve hand-eye coordination. As for triathlons, he has not heard any buzz about banned boosters in local races.
"The prize money kind of dictates how much you will risk your body," he said.
I'm not so sure about that. Sports have a powerful hold on all of us, and it's mostly about ego and competitiveness. If I could just get to a few more balls somehow, I bet I could beat Lebedevs next time we play squash. Somehow. Hmmmm.