He was the best of the best: a paragon of sports prowess, a steely emblem of personal courage, a portrait of human perseverance and triumph against the headwinds of adversity. Lance Armstrong was a larger-than-life figure of inspiration for young and old.
Now Armstrong, 41, the comeback kid who against daunting odds beat cancer and crossed the finish line first an unprecedented seven times in the grueling Tour de France cycling race, is seen by former admirers as just another cheat whose alleged mendacity is unspooling in one of the most spectacular, slow-motion falls from grace the sports world has seen in recent memory.
“It’s just devastating,” James Startt, European correspondent for Bicycling Magazine who has followed Armstrong’s career for more than a decade, said of the most recent doping accusations against Armstrong and the decisions by corporate sponsors to abandon their deals with the cyclist.
“I don’t think there is anywhere else he can go from here,” Startt said in a phone interview from Paris.
The wheels on the legendary cyclist’s empire, weakened by years of allegations of doping, have all but come flying off just one week after the US Anti-Doping Agency released more than 1,000 pages of evidence – including dozens of sworn statements from witnesses, 11 of whom were teammates – the agency claims prove Armstrong used banned substances in his sport.
Already stripped of his titles and banned from the sport that he recently dominated, Wednesday dealt more blows to the Armstrong legacy.
Sports footwear and apparel giant Nike announced it will end its sponsorship contract with the disgraced cyclist due to what the company termed the “insurmountable evidence” that Armstrong “misled Nike for more than a decade.”
According to reports, US consumer electronics retailer RadioShack also acknowledged on Wednesday it had ended a sponsorship deal it signed with Armstrong in July 2009.
Additionally, brewer Anheuser-Busch said it will not renew its contract with Armstrong when the current agreement is up at the end of 2012, Reuters news agency reported.
“He may bounce back in the private sector,” said Startt. “But as far as his public image, it’s over.”
Armstrong himself said recently he would no longer fight the accusations against him, but has otherwise kept a low profile since the USADA report was published.
But as if in acknowledgment that his once high-wattage star power was fading fast, Armstrong moved Wednesday to distance himself from what has arguably been his biggest achievement outside of his sports career: his nonprofit, cancer-fighting foundation Livestrong.
In a statement posted on the Livestrong website, Armstrong announced he was stepping down from his position as chairman to “spare the foundation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding my cycling career."
It was Armstrong’s personal success story as a cancer-surviving cyclist that grew the small nonprofit into a nationally acclaimed organization that has raised more than $500 million dollars to educate people about cancer.
The company, symbolized by the iconic yellow silicon wristband, gained worldwide notoriety after Olympic athletes, actors, and even one-time US presidential candidate John Edwards were seen wearing the so-called “awareness band”.
And while Armstrong’s cycling legacy seems on a fast track to ruin, his resignation from the Livestrong foundation may just be what the organization needs to stay viable, commentators said.
“Whether or not he doped really doesn't matter. His legacy transcends the rules of the corrupt sport of cycling. He gave people something to believe in, and that's something no committee can take away from him,” said Adena Andrews, a writer with the ESPN sports television network.
And while Radio Shack has backed away from Armstrong’s brand, it pledged to continue support for the non-profit he founded.
“Concerning the Foundation, we continue to be proud of what we've accomplished with our customers in generating more than $16 million to date in the fight against cancer," wrote Radio Shack in a statement.
Some supporters took to Facebook with photos of Livestrong bands, thanking Armstrong for starting the organization, and even sports writing professionals pointed out that the jury on Armstrong is still out, despite the case that has been built against him.
“The USADA document is the case for the prosecution, nothing more,” wrote Craig Christopher of Bleacher Report, a sports website. “It is a catalog of evidence coupled with a credible and engaging narrative. But it’s only one side of the story.”
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