[Update: The Associated Press cites a source claiming Lance Armstrong admitted on Monday during an interview with Oprah Winfrey to using performance-enhancing drugs to win the Tour de France. The interview is scheduled to air Thursday on Winfrey's network. The following story was originally published before Armstrong came clean on doping allegations.]
He stopped tweeting, but he didn't disappear. On Saturday night, amid an onslaught of bad news and the dismantling of his once-storied cycling career, Lance Armstrong stood center stage at the Austin Convention Center. It was the 15th anniversary gala for Livestrong, the cancer foundation he’d founded. He wasn’t going to miss it or slink into the background.
“It’s been an interesting couple of weeks,” Armstrong told 1,500 Livestrong supporters. He sounded if he was going to make light of the scandal. He can be sarcastic that way. But he immediately edited himself. “It’s been a difficult couple of weeks for me, for my family, for my friends, for this foundation.”
Armstrong’s precipitous spiral began when the United States Anti-Doping Agency released a lengthy report following a two-year doping investigation. In the report Armstrong comes across as the Tony Soprano of cycling. According to former teammates, he orchestrated an elaborate scheme to use banned substances while winning the Tour de France an unprecedented seven times, bullying others to cheat to remain competitive and threatening anyone who broke the team’s code of silence. Last Wednesday Armstrong resigned as chairman of Livestrong (Normally a prolific tweeter, he hasn't posted anything since linking to his official statement). The same day, Nike terminated his contract. Other sponsors followed suit.
How quickly did Armstrong’s cycling empire collapse? Just three weeks ago, he tweeted: “Had a great coupla days in Portland working with my great partners @Nike.”
Yesterday he was stripped of his Tour titles. The sport’s governing body, the International Cycling Union, announced it wouldn’t appeal the USADA’s ruling. After that, the loss of another longtime sponsor, Oakley, was almost an afterthought.
To those outside the Livestrong community, this past weekend’s festivities must seem surreal. The most discredited athlete in sports right now helped host a gala celebrating his foundation’s 15th anniversary, an event that raised $2.5 million and attracted several stars, including Robin Williams, Matthew McConaughey, and Sean Penn. Norah Jones performed. As you can see from the video clip posted above, Armstrong was greeted on stage with a standing ovation.
Largely overlooked in the news of Armstrong's resignation is this: Though he’s no longer chairman, he remains a board member. And as Livestrong CEO Doug Ulman told me: “He’ll be at Livestrong events and his participation will be significant.” (Armstrong himself is not currently giving interviews.) The troubled founder and his foundation remain intertwined. For now.
It’s hard to find a parallel situation in today’s nonprofit world, says Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University. The Tiger Woods Foundation floundered because Woods’ multiple affairs were at odds with an outfit geared toward developing responsible young people. The Central Asia Institute was undone by its founder Greg (“Three Cups of Tea”) Mortenson’s fabrications and financial impropriety. And earlier this year the Susan G. Komen Foundation lost support after it pulled funding to Planned Parenthood, a decision it later reversed.
The Armstrong-Livestrong conundrum, which I first wrote about in 2010, reminds Lenkowsky of the philanthropic thorniness created by tycoons such as John D. Rockefeller. Because he built his oil fortune by violating anti-trust laws, Rockefeller created an ethical quandary with his vast contributions to education and public health: Should organizations take his money or not? “It’s called tainted money, and it goes on in philanthropy all the time,” Lenkowsky says.
Armstrong’s alleged sins are limited to cycling. He lost credibility as an athlete, not as a cancer survivor. “For the community who has survived cancer, he is one of them,” says Lenkowsky.
On Sunday thousands of Livestrong supporters showed up to race in the Livestrong Challenge in Austin, cheer from the sidelines, hand out yellow roses at the finish line, and raise money to support Livestrong’s programs. They pinned “In memory of” signs to their shirts. They waved handwritten signs about grandmothers and uncles and fathers. Participants insisted that the event--and Livestrong--was about their cancer, their fight.
Just as he did at a Livestrong race I covered in 2010, Armstrong made an appearance on Sunday to rally the cyclists in Austin. Once again, he was dogged by scandal (two years ago it was a federal doping investigation). But now the presence of Armstrong is even riskier. Indeed, since yesterday Armstrong has quietly removed “7-Time Tour de France winner” from his Twitter profile and recently disappeared from the “our leaders” section on Livestrong.org.
He and Ulman are gambling that Armstrong’s appeal and value within the cancer community are greater than any backlash his public disgrace might cause outside that insular world. They’re counting on future donors to look beyond a polarizing founder and be won over by its mission and its help-line, walk-in clinic, and other services. And they’re hoping that past donors won’t ask for their money back as one California couple did ($50,000, according to CNN). Or simply remove their yellow Livestrong wristband, as some on Twitter are vowing to do or are deliberating. Sponsors such as Nike will no doubt be watching. Its contract with Livestrong is up for renewal in two years.
Lenkowsky hasn’t changed his mind about Livestrong. He still thinks it serves a distinct role in the cancer community by helping survivors. He remains optimistic about its future given how embedded it is in the cancer community. It works closely with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society. Nonetheless, Lenkowsky warns, Livestrong “should be in crisis mode. This is a very delicate situation.”