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Lance Armstrong: Fraud or not?

Lance Armstrong is either (1) the most persecuted and unjustly targeted athlete in the history of the world, or (2) the most accomplished liar since the advent of the multiplatform sports superstar.

There's no longer any room in between.

Tyler Hamilton eliminated that gap with his allegations to "60 Minutes" on Sunday night. He is the latest former Armstrong teammate to declare, in no uncertain terms, that Armstrong was on a sophisticated performance-enhancing drug regimen during his run of seven straight Tour de France wins.

Hamilton gets in line behind Frankie Andreu, Floyd Landis and -- according to "60 Minutes" -- George Hincapie, who gave grand jury testimony reportedly backing Hamilton's assertions. Does your yellow wristband feel any different today?

If it's all true, if the mounting pile of evidence collecting at Armstrong's feet contains facts and not some broadly disorganized plan to smear the man and his legacy, then Armstrong is a fraud. That's right: If Armstrong spent the best years of his cycling career enhancing his performance with EPO and testosterone and undergoing blood doping to improve his endurance, then he's a fraud.

Let's be clear. He's not a fraud for turning himself into a two-wheeled pharmacy; he's a fraud for crafting and profiting from an image that was the antithesis of the stereotypical drug-fueled cyclist. He's a fraud because he so vociferously attacked those who suggested his triumphs were aided by something stronger than pure alpine air.

(A brief digression: Armstrong's situation is different from Greg Mortenson's. The author of "Three Cups of Tea" and the founder of the Central Asia Institute, Mortenson is another icon toppled by "60 Minutes." It's pretty clear from the "60 Minutes" report and Jon Krakauer's reporting that Mortenson is a opportunistic fraud, one who came into prominence -- and money -- solely by fabricating elements of his biography and defrauding well-meaning donors. His alleged fraud was both the means and the end. Unlike Mortenson, Armstrong's philanthropy is not the means of his wealth or fame. Big difference.)

This isn't a drug thing. I hate to admit this, but it's surprisingly easy to understand the everybody-does-it defense. Hamilton employed it so deftly he managed to both justify and indict himself. The more cyclists break the omerta of the peloton, the clearer the picture becomes. It's a culture of organized cheating, with the kind of scientific attention to detail that puts the random injections of baseball players to shame. The doping world described by Hamilton is organized, plotted and -- more than anything -- expected.

If this is your lifelong dream, as Andreu described on camera, and you are getting dropped by guys who previously couldn't stay in your same zip code, you're going to have to make a decision: dope up or drop out. These cyclists are remarkably clear-eyed and direct when they discuss this; the whole Doper Madness is the construct of somebody outside the sport.

And so, to believe the majority of the peloton was doping while the guy who won seven straight was pure is to believe in pink unicorns and lollipop rainbows.

That gets to the crux of the Armstrong legacy. He has long subscribed to an us versus them world view. You were either for him or against him, and once you crossed the line, there was no going back. He is as viciously loyal to his confidants as he is viciously ruthless to his enemies.

No one who doubts Lance is credible. In response to Hamilton, Armstrong launched a new website -- facts4lance.com -- to hammer home this point. Landis is not credible. Hamilton is not credible. Andreu is not credible.

Moreover, "60 Minutes" is not credible or willing to adhere to any journalistic ethics. The website outlines a series of conversations between the program and Lance's people, and it concludes that "60 Minutes" is unethical because it failed to provide Lance's people with the names of those who were accusing their man of wrongdoing. This is more of the same -- the allegations don't matter as much as the opportunity to smear those making the allegations.

It has a cultlike feel to it, where anyone who dares question the leader is immediately discounted. Armstrong has painted himself into a corner. He can't come clean. He can't call a news conference today and confirm all the allegations, despite the good intentions of my fellow commentarian Jeff MacGregor, and then move on with the business of making the world safe for a new line of life-enhancing pharmaceuticals. He's gone too far, expended too much energy, savaged too many reputations to come out with a steely-eyed "My bad" at this point.

And so he is left with a looming federal investigation and the hope that he can impugn enough messengers to obscure their message.

Armstrong's defenders are those who believe in him, and those who can't afford not to. He's given millions of people hope in their fight against cancer, and he's done more than any one individual to raise awareness and money in the drive for a cure. There's no minimizing that.

But the question remains: How much good will did those yellow bracelets buy? It seems Armstrong is about to find out.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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