Before winning a single Tour de France, he cheated death. In 1996, he had advanced testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs, lymph nodes and brain. Doctors gave him a 40 percent chance of surviving. He beat the odds.
Then he cheated at cycling, using an elaborate blood-doping operation to win an impossible seven Tour de France titles -- impossible because, in all likelihood, he couldn't have done it without being so corrupt.
Thursday, Armstrong's confession, given in a Four Seasons hotel room to Oprah Winfrey, started to air as a two-part special on the talk-show host's cable channel, OWN. Part two airs tonight.
Armstrong's legacy won't come down just to his cheating ways, however. Because of cancer, it's not that simple.
Admittedly, it's easy and right to be cynical about Armstrong. He built a fortune -- his estimated worth was $125 million last year, according to the New York Times -- by lying through his teeth.
His confession only came after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency made a case against him so convincing that Armstrong was banned from cycling for life, stripped of his Tour titles and dropped by sponsors like Nike.
It's natural to be angry at a man who set himself up as a symbol of the incredible possibility of human strength -- as an inspiration to the sick, no less -- only to find out that he's a pathological liar.
But then there's the cancer thing. There's the Livestrong Foundation. Sure, Armstrong used his ill-gotten fame to date rock stars like Sheryl Crow, but he also used it to help raise roughly $470 million to fight sickness.
It's possible Armstrong was trying to deflect attention from his bad behavior with good works. It's possible he was trying to ease a guilty conscience. It's also possible he prevented deaths.
Armstrong isn't the first athlete to cheat. He's not even the only athlete getting raked over the coals this month.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame rejected some of the sport's greatest record-holders -- Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens -- because of the stain of doping. Those men certainly gave money to good causes. But unless they were doing it very discreetly, so far as the public knows, they didn't raise half a billion dollars to help the ill.
Armstrong was, is, and always will be a cheat, but he's one with a complex legacy.
His star has undeniably dimmed, but at least when it was burning bright, he cast light on a problem, and did a spectacular measure of good to address it.
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