As our recent economic woes have painfully highlighted, knowing the right time to get out can be just as important as the skills that got you to the top. Recently unretired Lance Armstrong is undeniably the greatest cyclist of our time, but, like many great athletes before him, he does not know when to get out of the game.

What separates Armstrong’s recent comeback from athletes like Jordan and Holyfield before him is that while his physical abilities may not have changed, the American public has. We are a steroid-cynical nation, and as the reaction to Armstrong’s return has shown, the blind-eye-turned approach toward steroids allegations ended long ago.

Celebrating with his three children on the podium in July of 2005, Armstrong had won his seventh consecutive Tour de France and become a symbol for both cancer survivors and American sports fans in general. The somewhat odd events of his love life, divorcing his wife with three young children for pop star Sheryl Crow, were mostly ignored, and Armstrong was at perhaps his peak of popularity and fame. His “Livestrong” bracelet was the fad of the year in 2004, and it seemed to garner the wrist of everyone from politicians to fourth graders (sales raised $25 million for charity in six months). It was the perfect time to go out on top.

What is perhaps most telling about Armstrong’s popularity after his seventh Tour was that the steroid allegations were already flying, and they did little to hurt his image in America. The perception may have been different in Europe, but it was, for a time, understandable that a successful American athlete in a traditionally European sport would be unpopular overseas. If you doubt that the American public was ignoring the steroid allegations, just consider this: Would a man who was even reasonably suspected of using harmful steroids sell tens of millions of cancer awareness bracelets?

However, as the summer drew to a close, the ongoing battle between Armstrong and the French media began in full force. L’Equipe, a major French sports paper, published the results of a newly developed test on urine samples for EPO, a banned substance that boosts red blood cells. The paper claimed that among the positive samples were Armstrong’s 1999 tests. The EPO test had only been approved two years after the ’99 Tour, but the identification numbers on the positive samples did match Armstrong’s in 1999. However, the validity of the EPO test on such old samples was questionable, and no official investigation resulted from the report.

While similarly impossible to prove accusations had been easily ignored earlier in the year, the American public was beginning to wise up to the use of steroids in sports. Mark McGwire’s refusal to deny juicing under Federal testimony raised eyebrows, but it was the Aug. 1 shocker of Rafael Palmeiro’s positive test that blew the cover off the issue.

cGwire was one thing, but if Rafael Palmeiro, of all people, had lied to the government about steroids, who else was similarly duping us? It may seem odd that baseball’s problems could cast doubt on Armstrong, but if an attention-starved has-been like Jose Canseco was telling the truth (or at least some truth) about steroids, it became harder to discredit entire newspaper organizations.

Since late 2005, when steroid use was forced to the forefront of the sports world, the positive tests and shocking revelations of athletes cheating have grown. The heir to the Armstrong throne atop American cycling, Floyd Landis, had his Tour victory taken away after failing a drug test result he still battles, and Olympic heroine Marion Jones went to jail for lying about her own steroid use.

While all this went on, Armstrong’s own banned substance questions seemed to fly under the radar. New French reports surfaced in 2006 that he had admitted steroid use to his doctor, two of Armstrong’s teammates in ’99 admitted to using EPO, and an Australian scientist testified that some of Armstrong’s tests were consistent with a pattern of EPO use during the ’99 Tour, but none of this evidence succeeded in putting together a successful case against him. As these 2006 cases faded away, Armstrong’s disappearance from the racing world seemed to effectively end many of the foreign efforts to prove his guilt, and American journalists were busy with allegations against bigger names.

Unfortunately for Armstrong, his return has reignited efforts to discredit his victories. Armstrong’s comeback with the Astana team, a team that quit the 2007 Tour after one of its members was booted for a positive test, will be heavily tested and meticulously supervised. It would be nearly impossible for him to dope during this Tour, and a victory would likely silence critics once and for all. The problem is those pesky 1999 samples are still hanging around.

France’s anti-doping agency offered to retest the ’99 samples in order to prove his innocence (though the firm’s motives were clearly the opposite), but Armstrong declined the offer arguing that the samples had not been properly maintained since 1999. It is hard to see how poor maintenance would cause EPO to appear in a test, and Armstrong’s refusal for the retest has raised some eyebrows.

Throughout his comeback, Armstrong’s detractors will no doubt bring new allegations and challenges, and maybe he’s ready for them. Either way, the American public, jaded after three years of revelations and scandals, may not be. Perhaps the man who is best remembered for his dominance in the bright yellow leader’s jersey should have just protected his legacy and ridden off into the sunset.

Jamie Leader is a senior in the College and can be reached at leaderthehoya.com. He hosts the sports radio show “Tournament Edition” on Georgetown Radio every Monday from noon to 2 p.m. FOLLOW THE LEADER appears in every other Friday issue of HOYA SPORTS.

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