Armstrong doping scandal casts shadow over cycling

Armstrong doping scandal casts shadow over cycling
Friday, October 19, 2012 - 6:22pm

The doping scandal that now surrounds Lance Armstrong, the man who came to epitomize cycling and the fight against cancer in both Europe and the United States, has plunged the sport into disarray.

Every day seems to serve up new allegations against Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service teammates -- and deal a fresh blow to the sport's reputation.

The latest bad news came Friday when Dutch bank Rabobank announced it would no longer sponsor professional cycling teams after the controversy that has engulfed Armstrong and the cycling profession.

The bank, which has sponsored teams for the past 17 years, made it clear that its decision to end its sponsorships by the end of the year was to distance itself from the doping allegations.

"It is with pain in our heart, but for the bank this is an inevitable decision," said Bert Bruggink, of Rabobank's managing board.

"We are no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport. We are not confident that this will change for the better in the foreseeable future."

Last week, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency detailed what it called "overwhelming" evidence of Armstrong's involvement as a professional cyclist in "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program."

In an effort to spare his cancer charity any negative effects, Armstrong walked away as chairman of Livestrong on Wednesday. Hours later, Armstrong lost lucrative endorsement deals with sports giant Nike and brewery giant Anheuser-Busch -- two sponsors, that had previously stuck by him.

It's under that cloud that Armstrong is expected to appear Friday night with other celebrities at a fundraiser in Austin, Texas, marking Livestrong's 15th anniversary.

He'll be joined by celebrities Maria Shriver, Ben Stiller, Sean Penn, Robin Williams, Norah Jones and others, but it seems likely that all eyes will be on him, as people wait to see how he will respond to the furor.

As the steady drip of accusations chips away the support of sponsors, many of his biggest fans are torn over whether to stand by the athlete in whom they saw so much to admire.

"As a human being who has watched too many people suffer the loss of a loved one -- especially children -- I love what Lance created in Livestrong," said Lou Hablas, who wears the iconic yellow Livestrong bracelet.

He told CNN that he will continue to wear the bracelet in memory of family members who've died from cancer, but that the poster of Armstrong leading his Discovery teammates at the 2005 Tour de France is coming down from his office wall.

"As a cyclist, I love what Lance accomplished, though like so many others I always suspected that he was guilty of doping," he said

The seven-time Tour de France winner, who never failed a drug test, has consistently denied the allegations.

The sport's governing body, the International Cycling Union, has said it will respond Monday to the doping dossier compiled by the USADA, amid calls for Armstrong to be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. The International Olympic Committee is also reviewing the evidence and could consider revoking Armstrong's bronze medal from the 2000 Sydney games.

Some observers have drawn comparisons to the cloud that hovered over American baseball after admissions of banned substance use by big hitters such as Alex "A-Rod" Rodriguez and Mark McGwire.

Rabobank, which began its involvement in professional cycling "full of conviction and with a clear mission," said it had previously seen elite cycling as a good fit with the company, its clients and its employees. But all that has changed since the USADA report alleging doping by Armstrong and others.

Its decision drew a sharp response on Twitter from British cyclist David Millar, who rides for the Garmin-Sharp team: "Dear Rabobank, you were part of the problem. How dare you walk away from your young clean guys who are part of the solution. Sickening."

The bank's decision was a big blow to the young and ambitious riders on the Rabobank cycling team, according to its general manager, Harold Knebel. Other sponsors are sticking by his team, he said, which will try to rebuild under a new name and be stronger.

"This industry can only survive with big international firms, and the way the sponsors now are responding to this situation is certainly not good," Knebel said. "If we want to stay in cycling and grow cycling on the world scale, then something has to be done."

In the meantime, the cycling industry and its international governing bodies face uncomfortable questions about how the alleged actions of the U.S. Postal Service team could have gone on "for all these years without being stopped," he said -- and how to prevent more such cases.

The editor-in-chief of Bicycling magazine, Peter Flax, told that he thought the scandal would have an impact in the short term -- but that people should understand that cycling has already gone a long way to smarten up its act.

"The next year or two will be difficult and pivotal years for the sport. People need to understand that the sport is way cleaner than it used to be -- far cleaner and more transparent than most other elite sports," he said.

"People also need to understand that cycling has the courage to face the uncomfortable truths about doping and then move on.

"Casual fans might be surprised if they can filter out the chatter and watch the Tour de France or other big races next year; now that the sport is cleaner, the racing is actually more exciting to watch."

As for Armstrong, Flax said recent developments mark a low point for the man who 10 years ago "was a legend in the making." The damage to Armstrong's reputation is not just a result of the doping allegations, Flax said, but also because of his arrogance over the years.

"Armstrong still has hundreds of thousands of devotees, but I think outside that core group of followers, his reputation is destroyed -- for now, at least," he said.

"Of course, his arrogance -- his intimidating and unshakeable confidence in himself -- served him very well as a bike racer. But he made a bunch of enemies and bullied some resourceful people, and that came back to bite him."

That said, Flax believes Armstrong's legacy will ultimately endure despite the doping claims.

"People will long remember that his mythology was brought down by a doping scandal. But I think in 30 years, people will think that Armstrong won those seven Tours de France," he said.

After all, he points out, Americans sometimes have a short memory when it comes to beloved sports stars and scandals.

"American culture, especially American sports culture, has repeatedly allowed people to come back from scandals and legal troubles. Look at Kobe Bryant, Michael Vick and Tiger Woods. I'm not saying it's right; I'm just saying it's the American way."

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