By JIM VERTUNO
AUSTIN, Texas — Lance Armstrong can never ride again in the world’s top cycling races. His attempt to win elite triathlons in middle age is over. He even got booted from the Chicago Marathon.
His cancer-fighting foundation, however, plans to plunge ahead, despite the sanctions laid on Armstrong by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and its blistering report that portrays the cyclist as cheating his way through seven Tour de France victories. The agency has now ordered those wins erased.
To the Lance Armstrong Foundation, a $500-million charity built on the “Livestrong” brand, it’s not about the bike. Chief executive and president Doug Ulman said the goal is to “keep fighting for the mission” of helping cancer victims.
He and the charity’s other leaders are banking on the idea that the good done by Armstrong the cancer fighter will overcome any damage to the organization done by the fall of Armstrong the athlete.
“His leadership role doesn’t change. He’s the founder. He’s our biggest advocate and always will be,” Ulman said. “People with cancer feel ownership of the brand. It was created for them.”
Although Armstrong canceled a public appearance in Chicago on Friday, Ulman said he will be a big part of several days’ worth of events in Austin next week to celebrate the foundation’s 15th anniversary, including a fundraising gala expected to raise $2 million.
Crisis management experts, however, think that might be the wrong approach.
Gene Grabowski, executive vice president of Levick, a Washington, D.C.-based crisis and issues management firm, suggested Armstrong step away from his public role for a while. The charity must be allowed to keep the focus on the work and should not engage in the public debate over whether Armstrong doped, he said.
“We have an iconic leader of an organization shown to allegedly have feet of clay,” Grabowski said. “If the organization is that important to Lance, he might consider handing the reins to another high-profile person.”
Armstrong denies doping and has said he’ll no longer comment on the accusations.
He founded the charity in 1997 after he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. The charity grew rapidly after he won the first of seven consecutive Tour de France titles in 1999. And in 2004, the foundation introduced the yellow “Livestrong” bracelets, creating a global symbol for cancer awareness and survivorship.
Armstrong has given every indication he plans to stay visible.
About 24 hours after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s report, Armstrong tweeted that he was visiting headquarters and stayed about 30 minutes. He chatted with staff and picked a place to hang a new painting he recently bought for his personal art collection.
The foundation reported a spike in contributions in late August in the days immediately after Armstrong announced he would no longer fight doping charges and officials moved to erase his Tour victories. Ulman said the foundation felt a bigger pushback from donors in 2009 when it endorsed President Obama’s federal health care plan.
Daniel Borochoff, founder and president of Chicago-based CharityWatch, which monitors the financial records of nonprofit groups, said it may take some time for donors to digest the allegations against Armstrong.
“Individuals that admire and support an individual who is later found out to be severely tarnished, don’t want to admit it, don’t want to admit that they’ve been duped,” Borochoff said. “People, though, do need to trust a charity to be able to support it.”
For now, the foundation can count on major donors like Jeff Mulder, a Michigan businessman who had previously purchased two tables at next Friday’s anniversary gala for $150,000.
Mulder said he “doesn’t care” about the doping charges and likely won’t read the details in the USADA report.
“I don’t know Lance. I’ve shaken his hand a few times. I feel bad for him,” Mulder said. “But I don’t do stuff for Livestrong because of Lance. He got it started, but I raise money because people have cancer.”
Corporate sponsor Nike Inc. said Wednesday it is sticking by Armstrong and the foundation.
“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,” the company said.
Corporate sponsors rarely pull out when the spotlight on controversy is white hot, Borochoff said. When the issue calms down, companies start to re-evaluate their commitment.
“Usually in a big crisis, companies hold back. They know from a marketing, (public relations) point, it would not look good,” Borochoff said.
George Merlis, founder of Experience Media Consulting Group in Los Angeles, said Armstrong’s defiance is risky for his charity.
“Every stone wall eventually crumbles,” Merlis said. “There are second acts in American life. He needs to do a mea culpa and ask that the charity not be hurt.”
Associated Press reporter Teresa Crawford in Chicago contributed.