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Column: Better to lose with grace

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

One guy was among the greatest losers in the history of politics, the other, one of the biggest winners in all of sports. They were men who shared little except recent headlines. But there was, in that juxtaposition, an object lesson for those who cared to see it.

The loser – George McGovern – made headlines by dying at age 90. He is famous for having been on the rump end of one of the most thorough election shellackings in history, cobbling together 17 electoral votes in 1972 to Richard Nixon’s 520. But there was more to him than that epic loss.

Although he took controversial stances and paid for it politically, McGovern is remembered today as a man of uncommon decency and principle. When he died, former GOP Sen. Robert Dole wrote in the Washington Post of how McGovern attended the funeral of Pat Nixon, wife of the man who handed him that bruising defeat. Asked why, McGovern replied, “You can’t keep on campaigning forever.” The remark, wrote Dole, was typical of his former foe, “a true gentleman who was one of the finest public servants I had the privilege to know.” If you’ve got to be a loser, there are worse ways to be remembered.

And that brings us to the winner – Lance Armstrong – who made headlines by cheating, allegedly. Armstrong, seven-time winner of the Tour de France, has been dogged by allegations of doping for years. His defense has been that he never failed a drug test. But a few days ago, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency issued a report describing Armstrong as the ringleader of “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” The report, said to be based on sworn testimony from 11 former teammates, depicts him as threatening anyone who might rat him out and pressing other cyclists to join him in using banned substances.

Armstrong was formally stripped of his titles, banned for life, and dropped as a pitchman by Nike.

There is nothing wrong with competing hard, wanting to win, or sacrificing to get there. Except when the thing you sacrifice is your own humanity.

• Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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