Latest suspicion brings back same questions

Beyond a confession, America will never believe the worst of Lance Armstrong. After all, he isn't one of the villains. These days, that's Terrell Owens. Barry Bonds. Randy Moss. Hey, that's how it works in this sporting culture. You get your label, and get on your way.

Lance? No, no, no. He beat death. He beat the odds. He beat the world seven times at the Tour de France. We wear those bracelets. We keep his books on the best-seller list. He's a hero. No, Lance Armstrong never cheated. He never used performance-enhancing drugs and duped us. He was never anything but a clean, wonderful American ideal.

That's the best thing Armstrong has going for him now -- a nation with its hands over its ears, mouthing "I can't hear you" -- as the anecdotal and maybe now, "scientific" charges of cheating have started to stack up. Suddenly, the French newspaper L'Equipe is linking Armstrong to EPO use in the 1999 Tour de France. Suddenly, America has to reconsider the possibility that our greatest sporting story could turn out to be our darkest.

Once more, it comes down to this:

Lance Armstrong is the most persecuted athlete of our time.

Or the biggest fraud ever.

Lance Armstrong is the cancer survivor, the hope of the stricken masses, as close to untouchable as anyone in our sporting culture.

So, yes, here we go again.

The director of the Tour de France, Jean-Marie Leblanc, insists that Armstrong "fooled" everyone, saying that "For the first time -- and these are no longer rumors, or insinuations, these are proven scientific facts -- someone has shown me that in 1999, Armstrong had a banned substance called EPO in his body."

Leblanc could be overstating the veracity of those blood tests dredged up from Armstrong's first Tour victory, but it's something else, and let's face it: There's always something with Lance Armstrong.

In the past, exiled members of his inner circle made these accusations, including a former assistant who said she tossed out his used syringes. There were five of those trips to Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, who's on trial this year for -- surprise, surprise -- distributing EPO to cyclists. Once, Armstrong embraced Ferrari as a critical part of his training regimen before bailing on the doctor, distancing himself altogether.

All alone, none of these suggestions leaves you completely doubting Armstrong. All together, it makes it harder and harder to believe that there are so many people from so many different walks of life out conspiring to tell lies about him.

The fact that he has never failed a drug test has long been his defense. That ought to be the best defense of all, but it's naive to think that's a foolproof measure of separating the sporting saints and sinners. Cheating is a sophisticated business, and there's always far more money invested in figuring out how to break the rules than in catching those who dare.

Sprinter Marion Jones never tested positive, and who believes anymore that she's clean? Once, she had been so convincing -- wagging that finger, declaring her innocence, smiling that sweet smile. Who didn't want to believe her? All she ever did was obliterate records, win medals, and oh yes, live with convicted sports dopers. No one buys her denials over the stories of BALCO founder Victor Conte and her ex-husband, C.J. Hunter.

Whatever the reason, this country refuses to be even skeptical of Armstrong's denials. Lay out the case against him however you'd like -- scientifically, anecdotally -- and it probably will never matter.

"I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles," Armstrong said to his detractors after winning his seventh Tour de France in July, after making a break from cycling in Paris this summer.

Maybe he's telling the truth. Maybe he's clean. I still hope so. I do.

But whatever comes out, Armstrong himself understands best of all that his country believes it already knows the names of all the good guys and bad guys, believes in the making of myths. Most of all, Armstrong knows he's damn near untouchable in this climate. Until that confession comes, everyone will keep wearing his bracelets, buying his books and celebrating the greatest comeback in sports history.

Once more, it comes down to this: Either he's the most persecuted athlete of our time, or the biggest fraud ever.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His best-selling book can be purchased at Amazon.com with this link: The Miracle of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley and Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty.