Racing, sports and Lance Armstrong fans are grappling with the man, the myth and the legend this week, as Armstrong remains, it seems, unperturbed in the aftermath of what appears to be damning evidence that he took performance-enhancing drugs throughout his storied career.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's report accused the U.S. Postal Service team under Armstrong of widespread doping and a cover-up that enabled Armstrong's seven straight Tour de France titles and involved a cover-up so officials never caught Armstrong via a drug test.
While many were saddened and disappointed, other fans and observers didn't care if he took performance-enhancing drugs with his teammates (who he allegedly "bullied") or on his own. For all we know, he may have taken them on a boat and on a train, with a goat and in the rain. But Armstrong himself appears "unfazed," as Reuters puts it, by Wednesday's report and the mounting accusations by others in the racing world.
Armstrong's personal response to the blow-up: he tweeted a link on Wednesday for a press release noting the 15th anniversary of the Livestrong foundation, commenting: "What am I doing tonight? Hanging with my family, unaffected, and thinking about this. http://bit.ly/Po6mXT #onward." He later tweeted a telling YouTube link, for the late singer Elliott Smith's song, "Everything's coming up roses."
On Thursday he tweeted, "Hanging @LIVESTRONGHQ w/ the team talking about next week's events and plans for 2013. Can't wait to see so many friends and supporters."
According to the report by the USADA after years of research, legal squabbling, and massive dollars spent, Armstrong apparently raised doping to a slick artform. Even so, plenty of people say they saw it happen, and plenty of evidence is laid out to show that he did it. But the outrage over Armstrong’s apparent deception is muted.
Maybe it’s the fact that so many big-name cyclists of the past decade out themselves for doping in the report. Maybe Armstrong’s endless philanthropy and those millions of Livestrong bracelets have helped his Q rating be higher than any scandal could bring down. Maybe people still want to be inspired by a man's incredible rise from a near-fatal bout with cancer to the top of one of the world’s most grueling sports, despite his reported use of PEDs.
Perhaps Armstrong’s future with other brands has been killed off, but this whole fiasco doesn’t seem to be hurting his relationship with some old friends, including the execs at Anheuser-Busch (whose Michelob Ultra beer he endorses), fitness equipment manufacturer Johnson Health Tech, energy food brand Honey Stinger (in which he's a part-owner) and most notably, at Nike, who are sticking with Armstrong and his Livestrong brand.
The sportswear giant, which just launched a Livestrong anniversary collection, didn’t even bother writing up a new press release this week responding to the USADA report. As ESPN notes, it just “re-released the same statement it issued in August after Armstrong gave up his fight against what he described as a ‘witch hunt’ by USADA chief executive Travis Tygart.”
"We are saddened that Lance Armstrong may no longer be able to participate in certain competitions and his titles appear to be impacted," that statement said. "Lance has stated his innocence and has been unwavering on this position. Nike plans to continue to support Lance and the Lance Armstrong Foundation, a foundation that Lance created to serve cancer survivors."
Also sticking by Lance is pro soccer team Sporting Kansas City, who play in a Livestrong stadium. Reuters reports that the club will continue to honor the agreement it made in 2011 to pay out $7.5 million over six years to Armstrong’s foundation for naming rights. "It's really about helping those afflicted with cancer," the team’s chief exec, Robb Heineman, told the wire service. "We've got an agreement for another four years for it to be Livestrong Sporting Park. We don't stick our head in the sand ... but it doesn't change how we feel about the Foundation and the work they do."
So the mythology of Armstrong has been dampened, certainly, but not killed off. And it doesn't hurt that he has plenty of corporate friends in his corner willing to help him out. In fact, as Interbrand strategist Dominik Prinz commented, it works both ways:
Actually, this might be one of the rare cases where his corporate partners can benefit from showing ongoing support for a man that might have made mistakes in his professional career – but certainly has done everything right from a human and social perspective. This can be a moment where standing one's ground might bring about even more positive image transfer for the brands. Why? Because they’d make a statement about what really matters and give their brands a human touch — which in turn could win them more share of heart and mind than any Tour de France victory ever would.
[Image via Michelob Ultra]