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Livestrong supporters say cancer charity has identity separate from disgraced cyclist
"Foundation should not be held accountable for his deception," says man with Livestrong tattoo
Livestrong has distanced itself from Armstrong and forged its own identity, charity expert says
Many nonprofits look up to Livestrong as a success model, expert says
In a sense, Fred Schuster has a permanent reminder of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong etched into his skin.
But to the 48-year-old New Jersey resident, the Livestrong Foundation bracelet tattooed on his wrist isn’t about Armstrong or his long-awaited admission to doping as a professional cyclist. It’s a symbol of his father’s struggle with cancer and the bond they shared, Schuster said.
Moreover, any time he’s tempted to pick up a cigarette, the recovering smoker is reminded of why he stopped in the first place.
“My decision to get the tattoo had absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Armstrong, and subsequently, these revelations do nothing to diminish the meaning it has for me. The tattoo was and will always be a symbol of the love that my father and I shared,” Schuster said in a CNN iReport.
“The effect he had on the foundation was huge, but they both should be able to stand on their own. The foundation should not be held accountable for his deception.”
Armstrong admitted this week in an interview with talk show host Oprah Winfrey that he used an array of performance-enhancing drugs to win seven Tour de France titles. He had denied the drug use for years, often angrily. The first of the two-part interview aired Thursday night.
Others who have worn the yellow bracelet or supported the cancer charity that Armstrong started in 1997 say Livestrong is now bigger than him. As long as people like Schuster continue to view Livestrong as an entity separate from its fallen founder, the cancer charity will likely withstand whatever controversy befalls Armstrong, charity experts said.
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“The organization has done a lot to separate itself from Lance’s image over the years. As a result, many people identify it as a cancer organization, which is why it’s not already crumbling,” said Stacy Palmer, editor of the The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a Washington-based news source for the nonprofit world.
After all, this isn’t the first time Armstrong has been mired in controversy in the past decade, and Livestrong is still around. Since 2004, when doping allegations against Armstrong first came to light in a book by French sports journalist Pierre Ballester, the foundation has experienced steady year-to-year revenue growth, according to financial records, with the exception of a dip from 2005 to 2006, the year Armstrong was cleared of allegations stemming from a 1999 drug test.
Many nonprofits look up to Livestrong as a success model, especially for its social media campaigns, thanks in part to Armstrong’s hands-off leadership, Palmer said. He hired a staff of experienced fundraisers with a history of running charities and nonprofits, which can be unusual among celebrity-driven charities, she said.
“He’s allowed them to go ahead without micromanaging, which some celebrities have a hard time doing,” she said. “For foundations started by one person, It can be hard to get past the celebrity because that’s how they’ve gotten so big.”
Livestrong has also built alliances with other organizations to fundraise and raise awareness around positive messaging, she said, which also makes it stand out from other cancer charities.
In other words, If Livestrong was going to crumble under the mountain of scandals and deception now synonymous with Armstrong, it probably would have happened by now. That doesn’t mean the foundation won’t face some fallout, but its overall future probably won’t hinge on Armstrong, she said.
His decision to step down as chairman and leave the board has helped distance Livestrong from the controversy and give the impression that the foundation is charting an independent course, Palmer said.
“It was one thing when there were a few weeks between him stepping down as chair but still remaining on the board that were questionable,” she said. “But now that he’s not on the board, it shows that (the board) is trying to become a new generation of the organization.”
Livestrong has indicated this would be part of its strategy going forward, regardless of what Armstrong revealed to Winfrey.
“… We are charting a strong, independent course forward that is focused on helping people overcome financial, emotional and physical challenges related to cancer,” the Austin, Texas-based foundation said Thursday. “Inspired by the people with cancer whom we serve, we feel confident and optimistic about the foundation’s future and welcome an end to speculation.”
That’s not to say the situation hasn’t provoked a crisis of faith among many Livestrong supporters, especially those who were inspired by Armstrong’s accomplishments as a cyclist and cancer survivor.
Evan Andrew Del Colle Jr. admired Armstrong and everything he stood for, especially after reading his books, and started wearing the bracelets as soon as they came out in 2004. The Livestrong slogan resonated with him after his grandfather and aunt died from cancer, and he decided to get a Livestrong tattoo when he was 20 because he couldn’t wear the yellow bracelets while playing college sports.
“Livestrong represents being able to conquer even the toughest of obstacles, including cancer,” he said.
Now, after all that has come out, the tattoo embarrasses him and he is torn over what to do.
“I still support the Livestrong cause and I am still in awe of what Lance Armstrong was able to do, doping or not, but both the foundation and Lance are now tainted,” he said in a CNN iReport.
“It is incredible that he won seven Tours, but he cheated. It’s plain and simple. And the fact that after all the cancer he suffered from he would do unnatural things that could harm his body is just something I can’t fathom.”
Before he got his tattoo, Schuster started wearing the yellow bracelet in 2004 in an effort to scare himself out of smoking. Then, his father received an abrupt diagnosis of stomach cancer in 2005. Schuster gave him his bracelet when he went into the hospital for surgery related to his stomach cancer. He never left.
The day his father died in 2005, Schuster held his hand and slipped the yellow Livestrong bracelet off his wrist and onto his. When the bracelet wore out a year later, he got it tattooed onto his wrist. The tattoo artist didn’t think yellow would wear well and made it red instead, Schuster said, so people don’t immediately recognize it.
He has no plans to get rid of it, given all that it means to him. As for his father, he had a dry sense of humor, he said.
“I would like to think he’s chuckling somewhere and smiling about the whole situation.”
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CNN’s Henry Hanks and Nicole Saidi contributed to this report.