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Disgraced athletes: Which are heroes and which are villains?

Lance Armstrong is cheered on by a fan as he rides in the Col du Tourmalet pass during the 16th stage of the 2010 Tour de France on July 20, 2010.

Joel Saget/Joel Saget-AFP/Getty Images

Lance Armstrong diehards are holding tight as the seven-time Tour de France champion faces a deepening doping probe in Los Angeles.

The cyclist is facing new allegations after a former teammate accused Mr. Armstrong of encouraging systematic doping while with his former United States Postal Service team.

Although speculative, the latest claims are wearing on adult-aged fans who can effortlessly rhyme off Mr. Armstrong's stats, and have held him up as a daily inspiration, despite his barrage of drug testing.

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In some cases, such supporters are personally invested: Their defensive fervour mirrors that of other fans whose sports heroes have also been suspected of bad behaviour.

Throughout Tiger Woods's spectacular sex scandal, devotees complained that the golf star's sordid parking lot affairs had nothing to do with his game. Similarly, Los Angeles fans stood loyal as Kobe Bryant faced a rape charge. (Ditto as he popped an enormous diamond ring on his wife's finger after he admitted to cheating, and before prosecutors dropped the case.) And although Kellogg's cut his endorsement deal, swimmer Michael Phelps was quickly forgiven by his fans, who couldn't believe all the fuss over a bong haul.

Others were not so lucky: Think baseball players Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, all ensnarled in steroid scandals, or NFL star Michael Vick, imprisoned for running a dog fighting ring.

In Mr. Armstrong's case, legions of online supporters - who total nearly three million on Twitter and more than 1.3 million on Facebook - have been dutifully defending his honour on forums such as "History of a Doper," set up by provocateurs who appear to relish baiting the fans.

"It becomes a personal attachment," said Richard Powers, who started a course in sports marketing and is associate dean at Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

"We need heroes, people to look up to, people to emulate. We respect that they can do something better than we can, and that in many senses drives our own goals and performance."

When these heroes face scrutiny, Prof. Powers said, "We make excuses for them, we question the source of the allegations or we concentrate on the things that made them a hero in the first place and dismiss the other stuff. We say, 'It doesn't matter - Tiger's still a great golfer' or 'Look at what Lance has done raising money for cancer research.' "

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It's one of the points Toronto lawyer and avid cyclist Tom Hughes raises when he speaks about Mr. Armstrong. ("I've lived vicariously through him for a few years," he admits.) Even if one of Mr. Armstrong's tests ever revealed performance enhancing drugs, Mr. Hughes isn't sure what that would represent for fans.

"Would that mean that he didn't win the Tour de France all those years? Would it tarnish his legacy of fundraising for cancer? I think a general figure is somewhere around $200-million. … If we did find that he was using a performance enhancing drug, would any of us be shocked? Would it mean that everybody else on the Tour during those seven victories was clean?"

The allegations haven't ruffled Terry Neelands, who along with husband Noel, have followed the Tour eight times. In cars, motor homes, on bike and on foot, they've traced its path through the Alps, Pyrenees, Provence, central France - during all the "Lance years."

"Lance is more than up to the challenge, if you've ever seen him on a bike," said the Burlington woman, describing the latest anonymous claims as a "witch hunt" aimed at a historic, larger-than-life figure.

Since our relationships with idols often become personal, Prof. Powers says, we'll often do anything to "retain our hero's status in our lives."

Toronto-based producer Sarah Nicholson continues to keep Mr. Armstrong in her life, and above her computer. The mega fan keeps a framed photo of the cyclist on her desk, one her friend Ms. Neelands snapped for her when he was competing with US Postal.

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"It's a bit goofy to have a photo of one's hero framed on one's mantel, but he is a mental machine," Ms. Nicholson said.

Speaking of her hero and his detractors, she quotes no one short of Einstein: "Great spirits have always encountered opposition from mediocre minds."

"He willed himself out of brain, lung and [testicular]cancer, hating his absent father all the way to make his mother and country proud, winning more tours than is humanly possible. He's the single most tested athlete in the world, which is a backhanded compliment."

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