Lance Armstrong can’t get cheating out of his system

A week later, he’s still cheating.

A week after Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles by a drug agency with an Alps’ worth of evidence against him, Armstrong lined his first public appearance with more deceit.

Speaking in front of the World Cancer Congress in Montreal on Wednesday, Armstrong introduced himself thusly:

“My name is Lance Armstrong. I am a cancer survivor. I’m a father of five. And, yes, I won the Tour de France seven times.”

The first part of his introduction is an honorable legacy. The last part is a lie. The real sadness here is that Armstrong no longer seems to understand the difference. And, frankly, you have to wonder if America does, either.

In the week since Armstrong was finally flattened over drug charges that have been floating around forever, it appears the cyclist and his fans have actually become empowered by the punch. Armstrong refuses to acknowledge his cheating, his fans have staunchly declared that they don’t care, and both parties have ripped those who would dare question them.

Don’t folks realize that you can live strong without living unfairly? Do people really believe that contributions to society should allow one to circumvent the rules — such as fair play — that make that society strong? In the past week, all these issues have been boiled into one ancient question — does the end justify the means?

Armstrong obviously feels that it does. So, apparently, do the many who have openly cheered for him since last week’s stripping.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency threw out all of his victories dating back to 1998 — including his seven Tour titles — because it is convinced he is a drug cheat. Armstrong decided he would not contest the charges because he said it was an “unconstitutional witch hunt” and “enough is enough.”

Right. One of the greatest fighters in the history of American sports refused to fight for his reputation because enough is enough?

Please. Armstrong gave up this fight because he was guilty. He was facing evidence of drug cheating offered by 10 former teammates plus test results that USADA said were “consistent” with blood doping. While Armstrong never actually flunked a drug test, this “enough is enough” reasoning flunked the smell test.

He quit fighting the charges because they were true. He is Barry Bonds. He is Roger Clemens. He is Sammy Sosa.

Yet many, including Armstrong, are still acting like he is God.

There have been columns declaring that the nearly $500 million that Armstrong has raised for cancer research far outweigh his cheating. There has been chatter that cheating is irrelevant if it is connected to the fighting of a deadly disease. And, of course, there is the theme that because seemingly every great Tour de France rider cheated — 14 of the last 17 winners have now been stripped — Armstrong was just leveling the playing field.

Funny, but where were all these pundits when baseball’s Mark McGwire needed defending? Like Armstrong, McGwire helped save a sport and brighten America. Like Armstrong, McGwire had an esteemed charitable foundation, pouring big money into the lives of abused children. And, yes, when McGwire used performance-enhancing drugs, he was just trying to keep up with his competitors.

But, unlike Armstrong, McGwire has been sent to sports hell for it, locked out of the Hall of Fame and his legacy forever tainted.

Not Armstrong, who, judging from his introduction this week, just keeps puffing his chest out farther. Can you imagine another athlete who has refused to fight cheating penalties still having the nerve to step on a public stage and declaring his innocence? Oh yeah. For years, Pete Rose would stand in front of baseball’s Hall of Fame and do exactly that.

America has long since come to grips with the notion that Rose could, at once, be a great baseball player and a flawed human. It would make things much easier if we could accept the same thing about Armstrong.

Why can’t we decry Armstrong for cheating while still applauding him for fighting? In a world where our sports heroes grow more complicated by the blog, why does Armstrong have to be all good or all bad?

And, really, why on earth can’t he just admit he cheated — there’s more smoke appearing in an upcoming book by former teammate Tyler Hamilton — and move on to more important matters?

As long as Armstrong keeps his cycling charade alive, the cancer message will be slowly drowned out, The sooner Armstrong admits he is a cheater, the sooner he can resume the business of being an inspiration.