Many fans still support Armstrong, despite recent doping revelations
"He's given a lot of people hope in this world," crisis communications expert says
Spokesman for federal prosecutor declines to say if criminal probe will be reopened
Armstrong is accused of taking part in sophisticated doping program
The 84 million bright yellow wristbands distributed by Lance Armstrong’s cancer charity have become a well-known symbol of strength and perseverance against adversity.
“LIVESTRONG,” they urge.
In the wake of Wednesday’s release of hundreds of pages of evidence supporting persistent allegations of doping against the legendary cyclist, there’s another take on the wristband.
Critics have struck out the “V” to make it read what they accuse Armstrong of doing for more than a decade: “LIE STRONG.”
Still, the flood of less-than-flattering details doesn’t seem to be shaking the resolve of fans accustomed to accusations that have swirled for more than a decade, accusations the seven-time winner of cycling’s most prestigious event – the Tour de France – has resolutely denied.
The information released Wednesday by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is part of a report to international cycling officials supporting the organization’s request to strip Armstrong of his tour titles and other accolades. He is also subject to a lifetime ban on competition in events sanctioned by U.S. Olympic sports bodies.
Armstrong’s fans took to Facebook and other social media venues to stand by the man many see less as an athletic titan and more as an inspirational cancer survivor who has raised millions for cancer research and assistance.
“Whether you did, or you didn’t, you still won 7 tour titles, you never failed a test and what you have done to increase the awareness of cancer, is enormous,” one fan wrote on his Facebook fan page.
“Believe me, no one can tarnish the good you have done,” wrote another.
It’s too soon to tell what the release of evidence against Armstrong and his teammates, many of whom admitted doping, will ultimately have on Armstrong’s charity efforts and his overall reputation.
However, his foundation says contributions increased after his August announcement that he would give up fighting the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation of him.
“Our donations have increased to nearly double their usual amount since August,” said Katherine McLane, spokeswoman for the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
“He’s a person who helped change the perception of cancer survivors around the world. He’s done an incredible amount of good for people affected by cancer and nothing can change that,” she said.
Armstrong won his seven Tour de France championships after being diagnosed in 1996 with testicular cancer, which spread to his lungs, lymph nodes, abdomen and brain. By December of that year, after months of surgery and treatment, doctors declared him cancer free. The following year, he established his foundation.
Three years after his diagnosis, Armstrong won the first of his seven Tour de France titles, thrilling and inspiring millions in his home country, where cycling is barely followed. His victory brought increased attention to the sport in the United States and helped raised money and attention for cancer research worldwide.
Still, throughout it all, rumors and allegations of doping dogged the Texas native.
In 2002, a 21-month investigation into allegations that Armstrong’s team used banned substances during the 2000 Tour de France closed after finding no evidence of illegal drug use. The International Cycling Union released a report in 2006 clearing him of allegations from 1999. And in February, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles closed a two-year investigation into the allegations without filing charges.
In the latest investigation, the USADA said examination of old Armstrong blood samples seemed to indicated doping. Its report also said Armstrong made a “financial agreement” to bury a positive test for a banned substance and accused the team of falsifying prescription records to cover corticosteroid use by Armstrong.
The file also contains affidavits from Armstrong’s teammates implicating themselves, and Armstrong, in the cheating.
The agency said its investigation “found proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Lance Armstrong engaged in serial cheating through the use, administration and trafficking of performance enhancing drugs and methods and that Armstrong participated in running the US Postal Service Team as a doping conspiracy.”
“The evidence in the case against Lance Armstrong is beyond strong; it is as strong as, or stronger than, that presented in any case brought by USADA over the initial twelve years of USADA’s existence,” said the organization, which is not a governmental agency but is designated by Congress as the country’s official anti-doping organization for Olympic sports.
Armstrong himself hasn’t commented directly on the case. He posted to Twitter Wednesday night, however, saying he was “hanging with my family, unaffected” and thinking about an upcoming event for his charity.
His lawyer, Tim Herman, called the agency’s report a “one-sided hatchet job” and a “government-funded witch hunt.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, which ran the investigation that was closed in February, declined to comment on whether the evidence released publicly Wednesday would spur renewed interest in possible criminal sanctions against Armstrong or anyone else associated with the team.
Bruce Deming, a former federal prosecutor and avid amateur cyclist himself, said he doubted the criminal case would be reopened.
“The feds knew what USADA knew. USADA knew what the feds knew. So this is not new information to the prosecutors, I don’t think,” he said.
In fact, he said, he suspects the information revealed Wednesday is largely similar to what federal prosecutors unveiled.
“This investigation against Lance, which you know involved multiple federal agencies and a very large, well-organized federal investigation and what has to be millions of dollars spent, came up with apparently not enough hard evidence to charge Lance Armstrong with a parking ticket,” Deming said.
Still, the report has had an impact on some fans, for whom the evidence appeared to sour their opinion of Armstrong.
“I am sad and have finally accepted there really are no true heroes in our world,” one Facebook fan wrote.
“On behalf of pretty much everyone who has held you in high regard… Looked on as an idol in the wake of your excellence in your sport… Bought your books and aspired to be as (successful) as you are… If the allegations are true then you have duped your country and fellow athletes,” wrote another.
Still, Howard Bragman, an expert in crisis communications, said he does not expect the accusations will have any significant impact on Armstrong’s legacy.
“He’s done amazing things for people with cancer,” Bragman said. “He’s given a lot of people hope in this world. And to many millions of Americans and people around the world, Lance Armstrong will always be a hero. And none of these allegations are ever going to change that.”
CNN’s Casey Wian and Terry Frieden contributed to this report.