AUSTIN: Lance Armstrong looked increasingly isolated yesterday, as sponsors stampeded away from endorsement deals after a damning doping report and public opinion began to turn against the shamed cyclist.
Nike, who previously maintained their support for the seven-time Tour de France winner, admitted that the evidence against him was now “seemingly insurmountable” and accused the Texan of misleading them for more than a decade.
The sportswear giant’s decision on Wednesday triggered a domino effect, with a string of other firms, including brewers Anheuser-Busch and Trek bicycles, on whose machines Armstrong won cycling’s greatest race, following suit.
Most sponsors, however, said that they will continue to support Livestrong, the cancer foundation that Armstrong founded 15 years ago that has raised nearly US$500mil to help fight the disease.
But Armstrong himself accepted that the adverse publicity could impact on the foundation and announced that he was stepping down as its head, in his first comments related to the devastating US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) report published last week.
“To spare the foundation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding my cycling career, I will conclude my chairmanship,” he said in a statement on the foundation’s website.
Armstrong is set to speak at a gala fundraiser today in Austin, Texas, to celebrate Livestrong’s 15th anniversary, in what could prove to be an emotional first appearance in the spotlight since the scandal emerged.
The fact that so many sponsors have now ditched Armstrong was seen as inevitable, given that 11 of his former team-mates testified against him, detailing what the USADA said was sport’s most sophisticated and wide-ranging doping programme.
Sunglasses-maker Oakley said it would wait to see whether the world governing body the International Cycling Union (UCI) ratifies the US agency’s conclusions before making a decision about its sponsorship with Armstrong.
David Carter, a sports business professor at the University of Southern California and executive director of USC’s Sports Business Institute, said Nike in particular could no longer afford to stand by the rider as it had other disgraced sports icons.
“I think because his indiscretion cut to the very heart of competition in sport, if he lacks that kind of integrity there’s no way a company like Nike can tolerate that,” Carter said.
Similarly, the president of the non-profit watchdog CharityWatch, Daniel Borochoff, said Livestrong’s future depended on the organisation distancing itself from the scandal.
“What the organisation needs to do is separate Lance Armstrong and all the charges of doping against him from the organisation, and this helps to do it,” he said. “The quicker they move away from him the better off they’ll be.”
Armstrong, now 41, had been an inspirational figure for millions after recovering from testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs and then winning the world’s most celebrated cycling event seven times in a row from 1999 to 2005. — AFP