Lance Armstrong leaves charity, loses Nike endorsement
In his first acknowledgment that his personal brand has been damaged by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's voluminous account of what it characterized as "serial cheating" throughout his cycling career, Lance Armstrong resigned as chairman of the Livestrong Foundation he created to help cancer patients, he announced Wednesday.
And in a further blow to Armstrong's reputation, longtime corporate sponsor Nike announced it was terminating its contract with Armstrong but would continue supporting the Livestrong initiatives.
Nike is the foundation's most substantial corporate partner, marketing a line of athletic apparel and equipment that bears the Livestrong brand. Nike was also the creative mind behind the wildly popular Livestrong wristbands that since 2004 have generated roughly $80 million in proceeds.
Those associations will continue, as least for now. But Armstrong himself will no longer be compensated as a Nike athlete in the wake of USADA's scathing report, his public personae deemed too tainted even for a company that has remained loyal to, and in some cases cultivated associations with, athletes with controversial images.
USADA's 202-page report, which was backed by more than 1,000 pages of supporting documents and testimony and made public Oct. 10, asserted that Armstrong achieved all of his record seven Tour de France championships "start to finish" through doping. It relied on the testimony of 26 witness, including 11 of Armstrong's former teammates. And it included detailed, first-hand accounts of Armstrong not only taking banned substances such as EPO and undergoing blood transfusion but also pressuring teammates on the U.S. Postal Service cycling team to dope, as well, and threatening those in position to testify against him.
After initially reiterating its support of Armstrong, Nike reversed course and severed ties with the athlete Wednesday - one week after the report's public airing.
"Due to the 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," Nike's statement read.
In announcing he was stepping down as chairman of the Livestrong Foundation, which last week claimed that donations increased after USADA on Aug. 24 stripped Armstrong of his Tour de France titles and banned him from the sport, Armstrong noted the organization's global reach and effectiveness in helping roughly 2.5 million people affected by cancer.
But, he noted, he had decided "to spare the foundation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding my cycling career" by stepping down as the foundation's chairman, ceding the role to vice chairman Jeff Garvey.
Armstrong, 41, won all seven of his Tour de France titles after surviving his own battle against testicular cancer.
According to crisis management specialist Ashley McCown, the USADA report was simply too damning for Armstrong's association with either Nike or his foundation to continue.
"Nike had no choice but to cut ties with him, and he needed to disassociate himself with the foundation," said McCown, president of Solomon McCown & Company, in a telephone interview Wednesday.
"Lance Armstrong is a brand, and Nike is a premiere brand. He is now a toxic asset that cannot be associated with. There is too much of a chance for Nike's fine reputation to be tarnished. Lance is damaged goods. The actions today speak volumes about that."
According to Katherine McLane, vice president of communications and external affairs for the Lance Armstrong Foundation (known more widely as the Livestrong Foundation), Armstrong will remain a member of the 15-person board.
Asked to elaborate on his decision to step down as chairman, McLane said: "It was something he was considering in order to inoculate the foundation from any spillover effect as a result of the controversy surrounding his cycling career. He made the decision it would be better to step down as the titular head of the organization."
Also Wednesday, a New York Daily News report cast potentially troubling light on why Nike may have been reluctant to sever ties with Armstrong. The paper reported that Kathy LeMond, wife of three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond, testified under oath in 2006 that Nike paid Hein Verbruggen, the former president of cycling's international governing body, the International Cycling Federation (UCI), $500,000 to cover up a positive drug test in 1999.
According to the Daily News, Kathy LeMond testified she had been told by a mechanic for Armstrong's team that Nike and a California banker who sponsored Armstrong's team had wired $500,000 to a Swiss bank account that belonged to Verbruggen to cover up a positive test for corticosteroids in 1999. Armstrong later successfully claimed that he took the medication to treat saddle sores.
Asked about the Daily News report of Kathy LeMond's 2006 testimony, Armstrong spokesman Mark Fabiani replied in an email exchange: "No one had any idea what she was talking about when she gave the deposition. No one has any idea to this day what she was talking about. And there hasn't been in all these years a shred of evidence - even in the notoriously one-sided USADA report - to support her accusation."
The USADA report, known as "a reasoned judgment," is currently being reviewed by cycling's international governing body, the UCI. It has until Oct. 31 to either affirm USADA's punishment of Armstrong or appeal its actions to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Meantime, the International Olympic Committee is believed to be waiting for UCI's decision before announcing whether it will revoke Armstrong's bronze medal from the 2000 Sydney Olympics, which was achieved during the period in which USADA concluded that Armstrong doped his way to cycling success.