Let’s suppose the new doping allegations against cyclist Lance Armstrong are true. Should his seven Tour de France victories be marked with an asterisk, or even erased? If so, then the unofficial title of greatest-in-history would revert to Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx, who won the Tour five times — oh, and who tested positive for banned stimulants on at least three occasions.

Plus ca change. (That’s French for “same old, same old.”)

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that trying to police the use of performance-enhancing substances by professional athletes is pure, Sisyphean folly. I’m even more convinced that threatening to throw the accused in jail — as might happen with Armstrong, slugger Barry Bonds and pitcher Roger Clemens, and did happen with sprinter Marion Jones — is a gross misuse of criminal statutes intended to sanction actual crimes.

This rant is occasioned by last Sunday’s “60 Minutes” interview with Tyler Hamilton, one of Armstrong’s former teammates on the U.S. Postal Service cycling squad. Hamilton said he watched Armstrong use the banned substances EPO and andriol, which can boost endurance. Another former teammate reportedly told a similar story to a federal grand jury, which will decide whether to indict Armstrong on criminal fraud charges. One of the most celebrated athletes in the world, Armstrong has firmly and consistently denied any use of performance-enhancing drugs.

This headline-grabbing Inquisition is a waste of time and resources. If prosecutors are sitting around with nothing to do, why don’t they go after the remorseless profiteers who nearly wrecked the global financial system? Why not shut down a human trafficking ring or two?

All right, I know, athletes who use steroids or other drugs to boost their performance set a terrible example for the children who idolize them. I can’t dispute that. But if we’re going to expect professional athletes to be role models, we need to give them the proper incentives.

It may sound cold, but you don’t get into anybody’s hall of fame — or score multimillion-dollar contracts and endorsement deals — by competing unremarkably. You get the glory by winning, by being exceptional. There is every incentive, psychological and pecuniary, to seek even the slightest gain in speed or stamina.

The truth is that pro athletes have never set a sterling example for youth to follow, in terms of treating the body as the temple of the soul. Muscle, bone and sinew are subjected to stresses they were not designed to endure. High-velocity impacts — of cyclist against pavement, fastball against chin, helmet against knee — take a terrible toll. Much of what athletes do to themselves should be filed under “Kids, do not try this at home.”

And as for the sanctity of the record books, athletes have never been certifiably drug-free. Baseball purists want to invalidate the home-run records set by Bonds, Mark McGwire and the rest of the recent Michelin Man sluggers. But students of the game should know that from the end of World War II until a few years ago, according to former players, the use of amphetamines was common in the sport. Baseball began drug-testing players for amphetamines only in 2006. Over roughly six decades, how many hallowed records were set by hitters or pitchers juiced up on speed?

We’ll probably never know. What we can be sure of, however, is that there is no drug on Earth that can enable me — or you — to drive a 95-mph fastball over the left-field wall. And there’s no drug that allows an ordinary person to ride a bicycle at top speed all day, climb one of the Pyrenees, pose for a picture, get a few hours’ sleep, then jump back on the bike and do it all over again — every day for three weeks.

Professional athletes are freaks of nature, with musculature, lung capacity, hand-eye coordination, visual acuity and other attributes that are different from yours or mine. The training regimens they undertake to marginally extend these gifts are relevant only to those who participate in a given sport at the very highest level. We may say we’re concerned about their long-term health, but all evidence suggests we’re really not.

We like it when they go faster.

If Armstrong lied all these years about using banned drugs, he should answer to his conscience — but not to the law. His teammates say that doping was commonplace among elite cyclists. He’s only guilty of being the best.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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