Portrait of a young boy and wheels of clay

The original 2004 cutline:  ROME, GA -- Samuel Douglas, 11, from Rome, Ga., runs alongside five time Tour De France winner Lance Armstrong during an uphill climb during time trials in Rome. Brant Sanderlin, bsanderlin@ajc.com

The original 2004 cutline: ROME, GA -- Samuel Douglas, 11, from Rome, Ga., runs alongside five time Tour De France winner Lance Armstrong during an uphill climb during time trials in Rome. Brant Sanderlin, bsanderlin@ajc.com

My moral dilemma of the week was a prized photo that has followed me around for a number of years.

In the picture, a desperate 11-year-old boy, wrapped in an American flag, urges cycling hero Lance Armstrong through an uphill pull during a Rome time trial, part of the 2004 Tour de Georgia.

The photo, shot by Atlanta Journal-Constitution photographer Brant Sanderlin, sits in my office next to an advertisement for last year’s Sarah Palin documentary. The question is, what to do with it? The boy and his anguish — there is a look of stark pain on his face — were real. It is the cyclist who turned out to be fake.

Last week, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released a massive case file with more than 1,000 pages and sworn testimony from Armstrong’s ex-teammates, who gave firsthand knowledge of his doping activities. The world’s most famous cyclist, the report declared, was far more than a bystander when it came to the distribution of syringes and banned substances.

“It was not enough that his teammates give maximum effort on the bike, (Armstrong) also required that they adhere to the doping program outlined for them or be replaced,” the report said. “He was not just a part of the doping culture on his team, he enforced and reinforced it.”

Those words appeared to drain all meaning from the photo in the office. Again, what to do with it? I posed the question on the Political Insider blog at ajc.com. Trash it, many anonymous voices immediately said. The Internet is nothing if not judgmental.

A Democrat wrote to commiserate. She was once the owner of a boatload of John Edwards photos that suddenly had no place in a thinking person’s life. Another political contact told of a football that had to be disposed of, because it had been signed by both Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky.

But on Thursday night, minutes after Joe Biden and Paul Ryan left their debate table in Kentucky, a message arrived on the laptop — urging me to hang onto the photograph. It was from Samuel Douglas, the boy in the picture. He is now 19, a student at Furman University and president of his cycling team. We talked by phone Friday.

Douglas was already a cycling fan before Sanderlin snapped the shutter eight years ago. His parents — Jimmy Douglas is a Rome physician, Laurie Douglas is a former teacher — had taken their three sons to France in 2003 to watch Armstrong win his fifth Tour de France victory.

The next year, Armstrong came to Douglas and Rome as a competitor in the fledgling — and now defunct — Tour de Georgia. The side-of-the-road photo made a mark on Douglas’ life. It landed the youngster on the front page of the Journal-Constitution, then the centerfold of Sports Illustrated.

A grown-up Samuel Douglas, left, with his younger brother William. AJC/Special

A grown-up Samuel Douglas, left, with his younger brother William. AJC/Special

“My first reaction was I was a cool and famous fifth-grader,” Douglas said. His highly perishable celebrity gave him a brief entree to a world closed off to most people. He has three copies of the Sanderlin photo, all autographed by Armstrong.

Like much of America, Douglas had a hero. “I really respected him,” he said, “and not just as a cyclist.”

This was a man of profound influence. His Livestrong cancer research foundation put rubber yellow bracelets on the wrists of millions. He had gone mountain biking with President George W. Bush. Texas Republicans spoke of Armstrong as someone who might have a political future.

“He was the Oprah of athletes,” Douglas said.

Yes, there were the rumors, all met with a blanket denial from Armstrong, who said he’d never flunked a drug test. For Douglas, that once might have been enough.

But on Wednesday, the USADA report included the name of George Hincapie as one of Armstrong’s ex-teammates who had ‘fessed up. Hincapie was Armstrong’s lead-out man, the only member to ride with the champion during each of his seven Tour de France wins.

Hincapie also owns a bicycle shop not far from the Furman campus in Greenville — a man of good, local reputation. “Once George came out, it kind of sealed the deal,” Douglas said.

Douglas said he’s hesitant to judge the hero he once attempted to push up a hill through sheer force of 11-year-old will. “We obviously don’t know Lance at all. We know that he’s a great example — strictly on the bike,” the young man said. “But off-road, I think we can look at him and know he didn’t treat his teammates well. I think we can look at his character from that and say that we’re disappointed.”

The 19-year-old said he wants to keep thinking well of Armstrong’s post-cycling, anti-cancer career. “Cancer doesn’t care that Lance doped,” he said. “Cancer patients that benefit from the research don’t care that Lance doped.”

For all those reasons, Douglas intends to keep those three autographed photos of himself as a flag-draped kid. As for the one in my office, it is important to note what happened after that moment was frozen in time.

Not in Armstrong’s world, but the world of Samuel Douglas.

That photo marked him, but did not make him. Since then, his father has taken him and his brothers — he is the oldest of the trio — on charity missions to Honduras and Africa. His mother has insisted that the brothers engage in public service at home. Meals on Wheels, in particular.

Samuel Douglas is an Eagle Scout, and he’s now headed for med school. To become a pediatrician, perhaps. We need more in Georgia.

So that photo will remain in the office, in its place next to Sarah Palin. It still contains heroic possibilities — just not from the man clipped into the pedals. Samuel Douglas has promised to sign it next time he’s in town.

- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

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17 comments Add your comment

Georgia

October 13th, 2012
10:50 am

It did seem odd that he could win all those races.

double

October 13th, 2012
11:36 am

He is not the first.He should get in to politics in good old GA.

Tom Krause

October 13th, 2012
1:23 pm

Easily the best column I’ve read on this topic. Good job Jim.

Diane Loupe

October 13th, 2012
1:54 pm

A great column by a terrific writer and cyclist.

Cherokee

October 13th, 2012
2:58 pm

What a great column.

Thank you.

And best of luck to Samuel Douglas – may he have every success in life.

Del Olds

October 13th, 2012
3:21 pm

Great column! And about a fine young man!

Public School Parent

October 13th, 2012
4:11 pm

Great writing Jim. I’m so glad to hear of Samuel’s achievements and bright future.

cc

October 13th, 2012
5:13 pm

double@11:36 am:
He should, at the very least, be one of Obama’s czars, shouldn’t he, double> “Choom” Obama did more doping than Lance Armstrong ever thought about doing!

eddy

October 13th, 2012
5:47 pm

As Samuel discovered along with so many others including me, we should be careful as to who we select to be our heroes. So many times, it is confirmed that they were seriously flawed and failed to live up to our admiration. Lance seems to be no different and that is so disappointing for me personally.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, his book, It’s Not About The Bike, was the first one I read. His story touched my heart plus he said something in the book and I am paraphrasing “In spite of your prognosis, always leave room in your heart for Hope” that I have relied upon. As most cancer patients know, Hope is in short supply in the cancerworld so we must grab onto it, cling to it and use it to get us to the next day, the next week and the next month. Lance’s statement helped me and I am forever grateful to him for sharing his story.

His legacy in the bike racing world is tarnished beyond repair. His legacy in the cancerworld is notable and one that I admire and am grateful that his story passed my way. I have had melanoma..Stage III….8 surgeries, chemo, radiation and a vaccine; I have had renal cell carcinoma….left kidney removed. I have had adenocarcinoma (lung cancer) …upper left lobe of lung removed. Prayer has been my rock but I always remember Lance’s admonition and in spite of all of the dark times, the little light of Hope continues to shine brightly in my heart.

CigarDawg

October 13th, 2012
5:56 pm

Jim,

So much for freedom of speech. My comment on your previous post about the photo was not published. Perhaps it was you, or perhaps it was the filter that caught me calling you and your journalist brethren the equivalent of “ladies of the night”.

Cycling is a very niche sport, followed by very few in the USA and understood by even fewer. Journalists created the image of Lance as a super hero survivor and competitor, without performing their due diligence on him or the sport as a whole. Lance was never a hero, he was a selfish, egomaniac who would do anything to win and crush anyone in his path. Those of us in the cycling community have been aware of the doping reality within professional cycling for decades and we knew Lance was no exception. Without you (the media) America would have never known or cared about some jerk who rode a bike in France for a living, he would have never been able to sell those silly yellow wristbands and we wouldn’t be talking about “wheels of clay” today.

If you had done your research, you would know that the Livestrong Foundation does not give money to research, it is, and always has been, about survivor issues, not prevention or treatment. But primarily, it is about perpetuating the Lance Armstrong myth and creating the false goodwill that ultimately got the Federal case against him thrown out last February, despite mounds of evidence against him.

Please stop writing about things of which you are ignorant and do your own research.

Patrick

October 13th, 2012
9:01 pm

Hey CigarDawg–

Your actual name wouldn’t happen to be “Dick”, would it?

woodrow

October 13th, 2012
9:18 pm

I’m not assuming anything in this case. I want to know how he passed all these drug tests? Clearly the system isn’t working. And, that would be the same system that is attacking Armstrong’s credibility.

ByteMe

October 13th, 2012
9:37 pm

You really keep a Sarah Palin photo??

One attacked

October 13th, 2012
10:42 pm

I find myself writing your blog for the second time ever. Armstrong did have testicular. Many PED are hormonal, he certainly did not start using only after cancer. Could one had to do with the other. Perhaps that could be his new message to kids. We do not know why some get cancer, but there things that we know can increase chances.
Today I sign as a survivor, not one attacked.

kaycee

October 14th, 2012
5:56 am

Disappointing a child can be a terrible thing.

burt bacharach

October 14th, 2012
10:02 am

live strong….

carlosgvv

October 14th, 2012
10:50 am

I would imagine most, if not all, of the major cycling teams did drugs. Lance and his team simply did what was necessary to be competetive. Apparently, all the teams found ways to fool the drug testers.

One way or another, this drug taking will continue and not just in cycling. I suspect it occurs in all our major sports, both college and professional.

All the hand-wringing and moralizing in the world won’t change this.

Top sports figures, like politicians, will continue to do whatever it takes to win.

Welcome to the real world.