With Lance Armstrong stripped of his Tour de France titles and exposed as a fraud and a cheater, it's hard to know how to feel about his Livestrong Foundation.
At breakfast earlier this week, my friend Todd Stauber rolled up his sleeve to show me the yellow, plastic Livestrong bracelet around his right wrist. Todd looked down at the bracelet, shook his head and said, “I don’t know whether I should be wearing this anymore.”
He began wearing it last April after his brother Kurt was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was meant as a reminder for him to be strong for his brother and for his brother to be strong in his fight to overcome the disease.
But now, after the founder of Livestrong, cyclist Lance Armstrong, has been exposed as a fraud, after Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France wins this week, after it became clear that Armstrong isn’t the person he portrayed himself to be, Stauber, and I’m guessing thousands of people like him, are second-guessing Livestrong’s contradictory message.
Should they continue to wear the bracelet?
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The evidence against Armstrong, which has been leaking out for years, is indicting enough. But testimony from former cycling teammates and team personnel also describe him as a belligerent bully, who snickered at all of the rules of the game and was blatant in his abuse of those rules.
Does Livestrong mean play by a whole different set of rules?
Armstrong cheated. And he expected his teammates to cheat with him. He lied and expected his teammates to lie as well. And they did.
But all of the lies have caught up with him. The evidence piled so high against Armstrong that even Nike, which stood by Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant and supported Armstrong through years of allegations, dumped him this week, faster than you can say Joe Paterno.
He’s now part of the disgraced gotcha world with other cheater-athletes like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Marion Jones and Ben Johnson.
So what are people like Todd Stauber, who drew strength from Armstrong’s profoundly personal story of survival, supposed to do? What can that bracelet mean to them now?
The answers aren’t clear. Armstrong, who certainly exploited his cancer struggles to help mask his cheating, still was an inspiration to tens of thousands of cancer victims. He was ravaged by the disease and yet he refused to surrender to it. His survival is a miracle.
“Never give up,” the late Jim Valvano told us during his unforgettable speech at the ESPYS. Armstrong never did and because he didn’t, so many more people haven’t.
Armstrong’s message of hope always will resonate with cancer patients. We should be grateful for that and for the many millions of dollars raised and the support given to patients by the Livestrong Foundation.
But it turns out, his life is a contradiction and the bracelet now feels like a symbol, not of his victory over cancer, but of the contradictions. It’s no longer a symbol of courage as much as it is a symbol of corruption.
Armstrong was another athlete who lived better through chemistry. Another athlete who thought he could game the system. He was a rolling pharmaceutical outlet. The evidence now shows that he took EPO, testosterone, corticosteroids and used transfused blood.
And for years he cockily denied everything. He argued his innocence in memoirs and in interviews. He sued former employees who told the truth about his abuses. He protested too much.
For years he was one of the best stories in sports. Now he’s one of the worst. And all of those yellow bracelets seem to mock the message that once meant so much to so many people.
Armstrong has done what nobody else could have done. He muted his own message.
“This is who he is now,” a friend of mine from Portland, a cancer survivor, told me this week. “The first thing people will think of now when they think of Lance Armstrong isn’t the victory over cancer, or the Tour wins. It’s the cheating.
“I wish he hadn’t cheated and I don’t think I would wear the bracelet now. There are so many other ways I can show my support. So many other foundations and organizations to write a check to. And there are other, better role models.”
Todd Stauber looks at his bracelet as part of his connection to his brother’s fight. But now when he looks at it, he also thinks about Lance Armstrong and the fraud that Armstrong has become.
Now, for Stauber, the message of Livestrong has very little to do with Armstrong.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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