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Can Livestrong Survive Without Lance Armstrong? CEO Doug Ulman Speaks

Ulman says donations went up after Lance Armstrong initially quit fighting doping allegations. But after much more damning evidence of an Armstrong-led, extensive doping conspiracy, Nike has dropped Armstrong, and he's resigned from the cancer charity. What happens to Livestrong now?

Lance Armstrong has resigned as chairman of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, and Nike has terminated its longtime contract with him. The news comes days after the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s lengthy report included detailed accounts by former teammates that portrayed Armstrong as the ringleader of a doping scheme that lasted for years.

Nike's statement, posted on its website, said, "Due to seemingly insurmountable evidence that Lance Armstrong participated in doping and misled Nike for more than a decade, it is with great sadness that we have terminated our contract with him."

Armstrong had initially fought the USADA’s charges, but in August, after a judge dismissed his lawsuit against the agency, he announced he would no longer contest them. "I am finished with this nonsense," he said.

Armstrong's resignation and Nike's decision were both announced this morning, but they came about separately in recent days, Livestrong CEO Doug Ulman told me today. On Tuesday, Armstrong told Ulman that he’d decided to resign as chairman of the foundation to avoid being a further distraction from its mission. Although Armstrong will no longer be running the board, he will remain an active member of the Livestrong community. "We are making separation from a governance perspective, for sure" Ulman says. "But he’ll be at our events, and his participation will be significant." Starting with this weekend’s gala celebrating the foundation’s 15th anniversary. Armstrong will not only be there, he’ll be hosting a dinner for major supporters at his house.

Ulman learned of Nike's move to terminate Armstrong's contract last night. The company has separate contracts with Armstrong and the foundation. Today's announcement, in effect, said the company was breaking up with him but remains committed to the non-profit. Nike will continue selling its line of Livestrong apparel.

Armstrong founded the foundation after the promising young cyclist survived a life-threatening bout with cancer. In winning the Tour de France an unprecedented seven times, he became not just the world’s best known cyclist, but as John Seffin, the CEO of the American Red Cross Society, told me, "the most famous cancer survivor in the world."

The foundation has been dealing with charges about Armstrong's alleged doping for years. In the midst of a two-year federal investigation, I asked, "Can Livestrong Survive Lance?" in a story that explored how the non-profit dealt with the controversy surrounding its founder. Armstrong, because of his fame and his own dramatic survival story, was the foundation’s greatest asset, but because of allegations, he was also its greatest risk.

Although its official name is the Lance Armstrong Foundation, it rebranded itself several years ago as Livestrong. That created distance in name only as Armstrong continued to appear at foundation events and as well as cancer conferences, even the Clinton Global Initiative.

Doug Ulman

Following Armstrong’s announcement in August, the USADA banned him from competition for life and removed the seven Tour titles. It made headlines around the world. But the foundation, facing an ordeal unique among non-profits, seemed to withstand the blow. "I think most people have made up their minds," Ulman told me. Armstrong divided people into three camps: defenders, haters, and cancer survivors. Since August, Ulman says, "the number of donations was way up and the average size of donations has been $20 higher."

The grassroots loyalty appeared to remain intact. But with Armstrong resigning and Nike distancing itself from Armstrong today, Livestrong is facing an entirely new test. Ulman, a cancer survivor himself, has said for years that the non-profit is bigger than Armstrong, that it’s about other people’s cancer, not one athlete’s. In the coming weeks and months, he'll find out if that's true.

Follow Chuck Salter and Fast Company on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious]