Is Lance Armstong Living Strong or Hiding Scared?

Lance Armstrong’s life, like his cycling races, has been filled with many twists and turns. Most recently the seven time Tour de France winner avoided federal charges over alleged doping. But the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is continuing its investigation: maybe another curve awaits (Bill Gifford, “It’s Not About the Lab Rats,” Outside Magazine, 1/8/11).

Armstrong’s story has been repeated so often that it has become lore. Conquering both the Tour and cancer already has raised him above mere mortals. These accomplishments have been multiplied by his unprecedented communications and marketing machine, and especially his charitable foundation (Juliet Macur, “Armstrong’s PR Machine Rolls Over Scandal, Bad Press,” 7/18/20, Jakarta Globe, http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/sports/armstrongs-pr-machine-rolls-over-scandal-bad-press/386448).

Further bolstering Armstrong’s image has been his political activism. He used this tactic to perfection by backing Texas’ Proposition 15, a 2007 measure which provided $3 billion in state money for cancer research, and California’s Proposition 29, scheduled for the June primary ballot, which would hike tobacco taxes to fund cancer research. Armstrong called the $300,000 spent by LiveStrong on advertising for Proposition 15 an “investment,” even though it was used to take other people’s money, not his own (Lance Armstrong, “The Payoff of Starting a Nonprofit,” Tex’s CEO Magazine, 11/17/10). Prop 29 would add a buck to the cost of every cigarette pack—the burden of which would fall mostly on those of limited means—to fund a new spending program by a government which is essentially bankrupt.

Nevertheless, as a result of these activities, he’s routinely ridden over his detractors, even those as accomplished as three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond. However, the road ahead might prove more treacherous than expected.

Armstrong proved to be both strong and skilled in a sport which requires both. He made his name in the Tour de France, the sport’s toughest contest.

Along the way there were whispers of illicit doping to artificially boost his obvious natural prowess. But the charges were never proven even as other Tour winners were unmasked as cheaters. One of the latter, Floyd Landis, pointed an accusing finger at Armstrong, as did former Armstrong confidante Tyler Hamilton (Claudia Grisales, “Legal Experts Say Armstrong Investigation Winding Up,” American-Statesman, May 23, 2011; Shane Stokes, “Armstrong Investigation: Rider’s Legal Team Demands Apology from ’60 Minutes’ Program,” 6/1/11).

Armstrong denied the allegations and was helped by his LiveStrong Foundation, which helped pressure journalists to drop negative stories (Gifford). Armstrong knows how to use other people’s money (OPM) for personal advantage.

LiveStrong does obvious good, though it gives very little to scientific research and has spent more on direct fundraising than it has raised (draft article—cites 990, http://www.livestrong.org/pdfs/4-0/LAF-2010-Form-990). Armstrong is not on the Foundation’s payroll, but the intangible advantages to him are enormous. The organization pays its president $320,000 annually (Gifford) and employs an army of highly salaried staff, many making more than $100,000 a year. The Foundation spends more than a million dollars annually on lobbying and has a political consultant on its board (draft article—cites 990).

Noted Bill Gifford in Outdoor Magazine, “LiveStrong spends massively on advertising, PR, and ‘branding,’ all of which helps preserve Armstrong’s marketability at a time when he is under fire.” (Gifford) The organization also spreads its largesse far and wide, including to consultants and other professionals.

Armstrong has no formal role in deciding which organizations, causes, and issues to support. However, it seems unlikely that LiveStrong would refuse a request from its illustrious founder. After all, without Lance Armstrong there wouldn’t be much of an organization to run.

Armstrong has followed the classic model of preparing to run for office, building support for a political cause, or simply enhancing one’s public image. As any political consultant will advise, identify yourself with an issue considered to be mom and apple pie. Of course, the best way to do that is to promote it with OPM.

All of these activities undoubtedly helped Armstrong when he denied claims that he won by doping. But the strategy isn’t foolproof and an indictment by the U.S. government posed the biggest threat yet faced by Armstrong. Defeating Uncle Sam probably would have been harder than beating cancer. However, the government closed the case without explanation—leading some observers to wonder if Armstrong yet again benefited from the influence generated by his celebrity (Lester Munson, “Suspicious Call on Lance Armstrong,” 1/10/12, ESPN.com).

Nevertheless, most people assumed that Armstrong was in the clear, reputation intact and legacy secure. But maybe not.

Largely unnoticed at the time were comments by Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which began its own investigation of Armstrong in May 2010, only to suspend that effort pending the outcome of the government’s case. “Unlike the U.S. Attorney, USADA’s job is to protect clean sport rather than enforce specific criminal laws,” Tygart explained. “Our investigation into doping in the sport of cycling is continuing, and we look forward to obtaining the information developed during the federal investigation.” (Christine Brennan, “Lance Armstrong Case Rolls On, As It Should,” 2/9/12, USA Today)

Neither Armstrong nor his spokesman, Mark Fabiani, has commented on the latest twist in Armstrong’s life course. However, if Armstrong really is who he claims to be, he has an easy way to prove it. Encourage the U.S. Attorney to turn over all evidence to the association.

After all, last year Armstrong announced on Twitter: “Great to hear that USADA is investigating [the doping] claims. I look forward to being vindicated.” (Brennan)

How about it, Lance? Or does that risk one turn too many even for Lance Armstrong?