Of Dollars and Doping: The Business of Lance Armstrong

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Lance Armstrong
Lance Armstong is going down without any more of a fight; what impact will his surrender have on the many millions of dollars in revenue he generates, commercial and charitable?

The seven-time Tour de France champion announced on Thursday that he will no longer contest the charges brought against him by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which alleges that Armstrong used performance enhancing drugs throughout his spectacular cycling career, in addition to running team-wide doping regimes. Consequently, USADA will attempt to strip Armstrong of all his titles -- including a bronze medal from the 2000 Olympic games -- and force him to forfeit millions in prize money. A lifetime ban has also been announced, scuttling Armstrong's plans to compete in triathlons.

Armstrong's statement contains no admission of guilt -- but neither does it assert his innocence. Instead it rails against the unfairness of "USADA's charade," insisting that "this investigation has not been about learning the truth or cleaning up cycling, but about punishing me at all costs."

Punishing him for what, Armstrong doesn't say; nowhere in the statement will you find the words "drugs" and "doping." Instead, Armstrong speaks of "claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999" (emphasis added). The logic underlying this diction seems clear. Cycling has been notoriously dirty; as The New York Times explains, "Since 1998, more than a third of the top finishers of the Tour de France have admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs at some point in their careers or have been officially linked to doping." That includes the runner-up in all but two of Armstrong's seven consecutive victories, as well as the men who won in 2006 and 2007, after Armstrong's first retirement (one of whom was also victorious when Armstrong returned to ride in the 2009 and 2010 Tours).

And those are just the ones who got caught.

With a peloton that physiologically altered, any rider could easily convince himself that doping doesn't equal cheating or confer an unfair advantage. And that, one imagines, must be the reasoning that has kept Armstrong going (and denying) as the evidence against him has mounted -- evidence that USADA chief executive Travis Tygart says will be made public "at the right time," despite Armstrong's capitulation.

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Despite incriminating statements from former teammates Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton (themselves tainted by drug charges) and the claims of a masseuse who worked with the cyclist in 1999, the evidence against him in the public sphere has remained largely fragmentary. To your average citizen with a Livestrong bracelet, Armstrong's protestations of no positive test ever -- from a man who claims to be the most tested athlete of all time, and draws from a deep well of moral authority as a cancer survivor and activist -- have been very effective.

Just how effective is suggested by an online poll conducted by The Los Angeles Times, asking, "Do you think Lance Armstrong is guilty of doping?" Respondents were instructed to vote "yes" if they believed that Armstrong "doped at any point during his competitive cycling career," even if they thought he "was simply competing in an even playing field," or consider him "a hero no matter what" for beating cancer. The results (as of this writing): 58.47% said no, 41.53% said yes.

A pretty astonishing result, given that belief in Armstrong's innocence now requires positing a massive conspiracy against him, including "more than 10 witnesses -- including some of Armstrong's former teammates and allies."

The perception registered in the LA Times poll is also reflected by Armstrong's sponsors, who continue to support him. But their responses betray a lack of conviction: "Lance has stated his innocence and has been unwavering on this position," said a Nike (NKE) spokesperson, as if that settled the matter. "We knew he was semicontroversial from the start," said the president of Honey Stinger, a maker of energy foods. "Bike racing for years has had a lot of controversy, and we're a small company built around endurance sports and he's kind of the icon." In other words, he may be guilty, but it doesn't matter because he's so famous, and Honey Stinger (of which Armstrong owns a piece) needs him to keep on promoting its products.

Others, like Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD), invoked Armstrong's status as a symbol of hope for those who desperately need it: "He has inspired millions with his athletic achievement and his commitment to helping cancer survivors and their families," said Anheuser-Busch's vice president for United States marketing. In addition to sounding like a cynical, commercial exploitation of a deadly serious issue -- and an evasion of the matter at hand -- this statement is rather ironic in light of alcohol's links to at least seven types of cancer.

What's Next for Armstrong Inc.?

So for the moment, Armstrong seems relatively safe. His short-term strategy -- to protect his brand by avoiding a public hearing featuring testimony from the witnesses against him -- appears to have worked. As Brad Wieners wryly observed in Bloomberg Businessweek, "Lance Armstrong Is a Conglomerate," following the playbook of so many corporations seeking to limit liability: "Pay the fine, but do not admit guilt, while serving notice that you'll be sorry if you slander us --that is, Lance --later."

The long term is another story. Another, potentially apter corporate metaphor was offered by Damien Ressiot, a French sports journalist who was the first to publish doping allegations against Armstong. "Armstrong personified impunity," Ressiot told Reuters. "He was seen as too well protected to fail. So the big message today is that impunity is over."

As in the case of the government-backed big banks, Armstrong's massive defenses -- lawyers, PR flacks, even his status as crusader against cancer -- have come to seem representative of his essential vulnerability. "I will no longer address this issue," he says near the end of his recent statement, referring to the question of whether his athletic achievements were legitimate or fraudulent -- the crux of any modern competitor's career. Instead, he says, "I will commit myself to the work I began before ever winning a single Tour de France title: serving people and families affected by cancer, especially those in underserved communities."

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It is as though Armstrong were collaborating with USADA in wiping out the significance of his career. There is a perverse echo of the title of his 2000 autobiography, It's Not About the Bike. Instead, it's about the cancer; for if it's about the bike, then it's about the drugs. This approach might find a receptive audience among Armstrong's admirers. When I asked a young man wearing a Livestrong bracelet what he thought about the charges against Armstrong, he said he didn't care. From the tone of his voice, I could tell that he thought they were probably true. But "this is about cancer," he said, holding up his canary-yellow wristband. "It's not about cycling."

In October, Armstrong's foundation will mark 15 years in operation; it has raised close to $500 million. And although a charity expert once predicted that the controversy would "devastate" Livestrong, donations actually increased significantly after Armstrong's statement.

But the facts of the case have yet to percolate completely. Once they do -- especially after USADA releases its evidence -- the topic will shift from Armstrong's drug use, a venial sin in the eyes of many, to Armstrong's honesty. After all, who wants a liar for a spokesman? (A known one, at least.) "To dump him today would create a whole new story they don't want to deal with," said Ashley McCown, president of a reputation management firm, speaking with CNNMoney about Armstrong's sponsors. "The question is when the contract ends, will they renew?"

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