Icould not have told you how many times I wrote in defense of Lance Armstrong over the years, but I knew it was a couple of times, at least.

So I checked. Five columns, starting in July 2004, standing up for Armstrong. Five times saying he was being treated unfairly by Tour de France officials, by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, by the French media, by certain members of his own racing team who were telling anyone willing to listen that Armstrong was a doper and a user of performance enhancing drugs.

I believed in Lance Armstrong. Not because I'm really into the sport of cycling -- I'm not. Not because I was a huge fan of Armstrong the athlete -- I wasn't. But because he'd won one of the most grueling sporting events in the world seven consecutive times -- all after he'd been diagnosed with testicular cancer and a brain tumor and beat that, too.

How does anyone -- even Armstrong -- win seven Tour de France championships and not be revealed as a drug cheater if he was one? Once? Maybe. Twice? A little lucky perhaps. But seven? It's just not possible.

So he must be legit. That's what I kept telling myself.

And the drug tests. All the drug tests he'd taken over the years, and he passed them all. How could he be a doper and a cheater and pass all those drug tests? It didn't make any sense to me.

Lancaster County native Floyd Landis won the Tour de France in 2006, and he was immediately found to be a drug cheat -- too much testosterone in his body. He had the title taken away. And that was after just one win.

So how could Armstrong have gotten away with it seven times?

Only one way I could think of -- he must have been on the up and up.

Armstrong, of course, denied cheating every time it was thrown at him. Over and over again. For more than a decade. He'd been tested more than 500 times, he said, when anti-doping officials were watching, and he never failed a test. That was his story.

Lacking definitive proof to the contrary, his was a story I couldn't resist.

In short, he played me for a sucker.

And I was a first-class sucker.

Now, according to published reports, Armstrong has admitted in an interview with Oprah Winfrey -- it'll be aired in two parts on Thursday and Friday on Oprah's OWN network -- that he used drugs to improve his cycling performance.

All those years, and all those lies. If the published reports are true, Armstrong will be setting the record straight sometime today in his TV interview.

Quite honestly, I feel like a fool.

And I don't like feeling that way.

Worse, at a time when I really want to be angry, I'm forced to leave the door open for the possibility of redemption for Armstrong.

Not as an athlete, because that ship has sailed, but as a human being who, in his public life, has done an amazing amount of good for a lot of people (his cancer activities and fundraising) to go along with an amazing amount of bad (his mean-spirited destruction of people who deserved better in their association with him).

Here's what I know about Armstrong the athlete, which is all I'm focused on today. He's a world-class champion in the sport of cycling, but he did it all by cheating.

He might offer an excuse for that. He might suggest he did it only because everyone else in his sport was cheating, and he had to cheat to win.

But that's no excuse. No one forced Armstrong to cheat. That's on him.

According to many reports, he not only was an abuser himself, he was the ringleader in the use of performance enhancing drugs by many cycling athletes. He is said to have been the lead dog in the use of steroids, blood boosters and a bunch of performance enhancers on the professional cycling tour. And he allegedly ruled with an iron hand.

And when asked, he lied about it.

So I have to ask myself, how is he any different than Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro and so many others in the world of baseball, who are thought to have abused performance enhancing drugs?

I've denounced them all.

I believe sports fans should hold them to a performance standard that does not include cheating.

So there's no difference. That's the short answer.

In a column I wrote more than seven years ago, I ended with this:

"I don't believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny anymore, but I'll admit I'm hanging in there with Lance Armstrong.

"Still, it's not so easy dismissing this latest attack on Armstrong out of hand. We've heard too many steroid denials from too many big-time athletes not to be a little cynical.

"But I'm holding out for a smoking gun. And I haven't seen one yet.

"If that makes me a gullible sap, a pushover, so be it.

Clearly I was a gullible sap, a pushover.

But not anymore.

It's been a long time coming, but I've finally seen the smoking gun.

Sports columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Thursdays. E-mail: lhicks@yorkdispatch.com.