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USADA stripped Lance Armstrong’s titles; sponsors fled; fans left to decide

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Lance Armstrong was accorded a hero’s reception when he strode on stage at the Austin Convention Center for this weekend’s 15th anniversary celebration of Livestrong, the charity he founded to help those battling cancer following his own diagnosis in 1996.

In his first public remarks since the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency declared his seven Tour de France championships the result of massive, systematic doping, Armstrong didn’t address the damning charges labeling him a “serial cheat,” saying simply that it had been a “difficult couple of weeks.” Instead, he thanked the adoring crowd of 1,500 for its support, some of whom paid $100,000 to sit at the head table, have their picture taken with the cycling icon and take home an autographed Livestrong jersey.

In the wake of USADA’s devastating report, the gala dedicated to the cancer fight represents the one arena in which Armstrong, 41, still stands as an unqualified champion.

As yet, there is no indication that Armstrong will ever come clean about, or rebut, his role in what USADA dubbed “the most sophisticated, professional and successful doping program that sport has ever seen” despite the fact that 11 former teammates have testified against him, offering first-hand accounts of the champion injecting himself with banned substances, undergoing blood transfusions, conspiring to evade and outfox drug tests, demanding  that key teammates dope, as well, and threatening those in position to expose him.

Amid the silence, Armstrong’s major sponsors fled last week, with Nike, Anheuser-Busch and bike manufacturer Trek cutting ties with the athlete while continuing to support Livestrong. Armstrong resigned as chairman of his foundation. In Australia, where the Texan has enjoyed an ardent following, billboard-sized images of Armstrong were removed from a cancer-treatment center that houses a Livestrong branch. And there’s evidence the sport’s international credibility has suffered as a result, with Rabobank, a major Dutch bank, announcing it will terminate its 17-year sponsorship of a European professional team because it was “no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport.”

Already stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned from the sport for refusing to answer USADA’s charges, Armstrong faces an even more difficult road ahead.

Cycling’s international governing body, the International Cycling Union (UCI), will announce Monday whether it will affirm USADA’s findings or appeal them to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. A rejection of the report, which includes 1,000 pages of supporting documents, is difficult to fathom.

Assuming UCI affirms, Tour de France officials are expected to formally vacate the 1999-2005 titles and demand repayment of Armstrong’s winnings. The International Olympic Committee may revoke his 2000 bronze medal. And he could face a flurry of lawsuits: By a Texas-based indemnity company that paid him a $5 million bonus for winning five consecutive Tour de France titles with the understanding he did so without doping; by a London newspaper Armstrong successfully sued for libel over doping allegations; and possibly by the U.S. Justice Department, which could join a private, whistleblower action seeking repayment of more than $30 million of federal funds that bankrolled Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service cycling team.

Meantime, vast numbers of people — cycling enthusiasts, casual sports fans and many who have faced serious illness, among them — are left to wonder: Just who is Lance Armstrong?

The cancer survivor who achieved miraculous feats on a bike, overcoming brain surgery to claim the sport’s most coveted trophy seven times? The selfless athlete who leveraged his success to help others, raising nearly $500 million for cancer patients through his Livestrong Foundation? Or the vengeful bully who doped his way to cycling glory and used every means at his disposal, including lawsuits and threats, to preserve a fraudulent legacy?

Mike Lampe, 50, of Elkridge, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at 32, says his view of Armstrong hasn’t diminished at all in the wake of USADA’s report. If anything, Lampe says, the report made him feel worse for Armstrong, who he feels is being persecuted by the agency. That’s not to say Lampe believes Armstrong won his cycling titles without chemical assistance.

“I wasn’t so naïve that I didn’t have an inkling that he was probably hedging,” Lampe said. “Everybody in that sport cheats, if you want to call it cheating. He was still the best; he was beating everybody else who was cheating. And he’s still a miracle with respect to beating cancer and all he has gone through. Look at what he has done with his altruistic work: That is something to be admired. He had the platform, and not everybody who has the platform takes advantage of it.”

The allegations weigh more heavily on Lennie Phillips, 39, of Kensington, who has been troubled ever since Armstrong dropped his fight against USADA’s charges in August.

“When you stop, it kind of makes you look guilty,” said Phillips, also a cancer survivor. “If he’s guilty, it’s sad to see. He has disappointed a lot of fans. He has done so much for the cancer community. It’s a shame to see all the good things he has done be tarnished by what he did in racing. Whether they go hand in hand — well, that’s for each person to decide.”

Over the 15 months that author Daniel Coyle spent in Spain researching his 2005 book, “Lance Armstrong’s War.” He concluded there were two distinct faces of the sporting icon.

“There was the way we perceived him in public, and the way he operated inside the sport,” said Coyle, who co-authored cyclist Tyler Hamilton’s recent doping confessional, “The Secret Race.” “All of his teammates regarded the world’s opinion about Lance with a great deal of puzzlement and bemusement. The guy the world saw was not the guy they saw. There was this perception gap.”

What created that gap, Coyle believes, was Armstrong’s triumph over cancer after being given just a 40 percent chance of surviving upon being diagnosed in October 1996.

“The strongest drug in all of this is Lance’s story: His comeback from cancer to win the hardest event in the world,” Coyle said. “The power of that story drove everything. And he was skilled at telling it. He is really good at controlling a narrative, and he understands how to connect and communicate. He is brilliant at that.”

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