January 22, 2013

Devin Golden: Do fans doubt all athletes now?

— It’s strange how one simple four-word question can snowball an entire string of thoughts worthy of a column.

One of the first things Saul Raisin told me Friday in our phone interview was he was clean his entire career. That comment came up later that day while speaking to a number of cycling enthusiasts at Bear Creek Bike Shop.

“Did you believe him?” a local cyclist in the shop asked.

I hesitated for two seconds, an eternity when answering a yes-or-no question, before affirming that I did believe the Dalton cyclist.

The hesitation wasn’t because I didn’t know the answer.

It was because the question seems so natural to ask of any athlete.

After Lance Armstrong’s now-famous interview with Oprah Winfrey last week, Raisin and I spoke for the second time ever (we spoke once last spring to talk about his push to compete in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii).

It was a good 15 minutes on the Dalton native and former professional cyclist’s feelings regarding Armstrong’s long-overdue admission to doping in each of his seven Tour dé France victories.

Part of his answer to my first question gave me the answer to my second one.

“... I raced my whole career clean,” Raisin told me.

“I never used drugs or anything. I was a natural cyclist. ...”

I was leading toward the “did you ever” inquiry. He answered it before I asked, and without pushing any further or thinking a second longer, I believed him and moved on, in my mind positive his assertion was 100 percent truthful.

The thing is, I don’t know why I automatically believed. And Armstrong is the latest person to blame for that.

This is not an accusation that Raisin took PEDs, or a belief he wasn’t clean. But isn’t it tough to blindly believe any athlete’s word after being lied to by so many others? For years, Armstrong defiantly shot back at his accusers. For years, he made people believe his lie.

Armstrong did win seven Tour de France titles, and many like Raisin never got close to sniffing such success. He said on Friday, “It takes millions of dollars to do those things.”

“The guys that cheat nowadays are a very small percentage of athletes,” Raisin told me Monday in a follow-up conversation.

I join Raisin and others in being part of the skeptical-for-years crowd regarding Armstrong’s purity in his accomplishments. So his admission wasn’t much of a shock. Additionally, I don’t care much for Armstrong as an athlete, nor did I ever, because I’m not a passionate fan of professional cycling. Its most famous name coming clean doesn’t make me like the sport any more or less.

It just affirms something that already may have been true.

As fans, we develop an understood, unspoken trust with our favorite athletes. We trust them not to deceive us in any way. We cheer for them and hope they don’t string us along with a lie like Armstrong’s career, a fairytale filled with made-up wonder. It’s something that is easy to fall in love with and staunchly defend, if only because fans want to believe in the existence of purity.

Armstrong’s lie hurt his strongest supporters, and he broke that pact with his fans.

It isn’t the first time. Too often there has been a heroic figure who deceived his fans into believing in the purity of his or her accomplishments. Marion Jones. Ben Johnson. “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Mark McGwire. Pete Rose. Floyd Landis. Probably many others who haven’t been revealed.

“We’ve had so many guys that have been caught with a positive,” said Shane Adams, an avid local cyclist and the owner of Bear Creek Bike Shop. “What it does is every time it causes a little bit of skepticism, and the innocence in the sport is gone to a certain degree where every time you see a guy makes a climb and rides away from the field, our running joke is, ‘Oh, he’s doping.’

“But it’s no different from Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire. Any time he rips one out of the park, you think, ‘Could he have done that if he wasn’t on the juice?’”

After being letdown so many times by so many athletes, is there an automatic question mark for every accomplished athlete? Michael Jordan? Chipper Jones? Everyone?

Raisin does not think that is right, “because the majority of athletes have integrity and morals.

“It’s the ones that don’t care that have disrespect,” he added.

I hope he’s right, but to have the doubt has become normal.

“Absolutely, with all the scrutiny in sports,” Raisin said.

It’s not about whether I am sure someone is guilty anymore, right? It’s whether I am sure if someone is innocent.

And I’m not the only one. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America voted that the cloud surrounding many baseball players from the 1990s was too much. No one from the field — including McGwire, Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and even former Atlanta Brave Fred McGriff — was voted into the Hall of Fame earlier this month.

I would never say for sure, unless they already admitted it, that any of the above ever cheated. But I’d never say for sure any didn’t. And their own words aren’t enough to rid of all doubt anymore.

“Do you believe (Raisin) if he would’ve said that (to you)?” I asked the same person in the shop, turning the question back to him out of curiosity.

“Yeah, because Saul being who he is, if he did, then he’d be bragging about it,” the person’s response went.

In other words, the knowledge of Raisin’s personality is enough. But is it enough for everyone else? Not for Raisin, but all athletes — on any level of competition — who we care about?

Will any form of proof ever be enough again?

Devin Golden is a sports writer for The Daily Citizen. Contact him at devingolden@ daltoncitizen.com.