Paul Fennessy assesses the legacy of Lance Armstrong as the controversial cyclist’s retirement looms

In the fortnight since my last column, sporting greats of past, present and future have come under the spotlight. Gareth Bale and Jack Wilshere emphasised their enormous potential with exceptional Champions League performances that belied their youthful demeanours, Wayne Rooney conducted himself poorly during his successful ploy to garner exorbitant wages, and Maradona and Pelé celebrated their 50th and 70th birthdays respectively.

And not forgetting Paul Gascoigne’s latest brush with ignominy in the form of his drink-driving arrest, in addition to Roger Federer equalling Pete Sampras’ record of 64 titles by winning the Stockholm Open.

However, out of all of the aforementioned names, the sportsman who has arguably achieved the most impressive individual feats of all has been given the least amount of media coverage. Last week, Lance Armstrong revealed that he would finally be ending his extraordinary international cycling career. The 39-year-old announced that his participation in the Tour Down Under in January 2011 would be his last professional cycling appearance outside the US.

Never has a cyclist’s career involved so much success and controversy in equal measure. Armstrong’s story constitutes the archetypal underdog tale, while encompassing the type of highs and lows that a Hollywood studio would consider too far-fetched if his life were a movie script.

The demons that Armstrong has been consistently forced to fight have been well documented. Over the course of his career he has endured a bout of testicular cancer, the death of his friend and teammate Fabio Casartelli and a marital breakdown, along with several failed relationships. Yet more often than not, when competing on the cycling track, the Texas-born athlete has prospered.

Having been given only a 40 per cent chance of survival following life-saving surgery, Armstrong went on not only to recover, but to win an unprecedented seven consecutive Tour de France titles. He has continually helped raise awareness for cancer treatments and has also founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation for cancer research and support.

Yet Armstrong is hardly considered a national icon despite his series of superhuman feats. Put simply, there is a reason his prospective retirement was not considered front-page news and instead, consigned to a few small sentences in the sports section of most papers.

Firstly, this is the second time Armstrong has retired. He initially did so immediately following his astonishing acquisition of that seventh Tour de France triumph. In hindsight, it is difficult to argue that Armstrong’s return to the world of professional cycling was anything other than a mistake.

Though Armstrong demonstrated occasional glimpses of his past brilliance, most notably in the 2009 Tour de France in which he finished third, his recent exploits have been largely fruitless. The disappointment marking the past two years of Armstrong’s career culminated with the 2010 Tour de France, which he began in impressive fashion, only to be blighted by several crashes before floundering to a 23rd place finish.

However, several sporting legends – including Maradona and Pelé – have had careers which have ended with a whimper rather than a bang, and yet their iconic legacies have endured. Armstrong would surely be forgiven for ill-advisedly prolonging his career, like so many other greats before him, were it not for the endless accusations that have relentlessly threatened to tarnish the cyclist’s image irrevocably.

Armstrong has accused his critics of resorting to the very worst excesses of tabloid journalism, but reputed broadsheet scribes such as Paul Kimmage and David Walsh have been at the forefront of the case against Armstrong. While these claims were quashed owing to a lack of clear evidence, an inordinate number of ex-Armstrong associates have added further credence to these allegations.

Therefore, the relative media silence over Armstrong’s latest announcement spoke volumes and was a clear indication of many people’s underlying attitude towards the cyclist. The conspicuous refusal to use his imminent retirement as an excuse to glorify someone who could otherwise be legitimately thought of as the greatest cyclist of all time, signalled the thinly-veiled suspicion which lingers whenever Armstrong’s successes are mentioned.

Even David Millar, a fellow cyclist and former close associate of Armstrong, said in the lead up to the 2009 Tour de France that: “He is very good at channelling every single element of his being into doing one thing. I don’t know him well enough to know if that costs him anything else in the rest of his life.”

On the last occasion he won the Tour de France, Armstrong was given the opportunity to address his critics, while basking in his success on the podium. He delivered the following statement: “I’m sorry you can’t dream big and I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles. This is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it, so vive la tour.”

One can only hope, for the sake of the man himself and for the credibility of professional cycling writ large, that Armstrong means what he says and that the cacophonous cries of wrongdoing prove unfounded. Yet sadly, in keeping with cycling’s flailing reputation, time is likely to judge Armstrong harshly. And for once when forced to choose, the Hollywood scriptwriters will surely pick the truth ahead of the legend.