New York - Lance Armstrong's reputation may be in tatters but in the eyes of corporate and individual donors, his charity still wears an unsullied yellow jersey.
Armstrong announced last week he would no longer fight the doping allegations that have dogged him for years. He was subsequently stripped of his record seven Tour de France titles and banned from professional cycling.
But in the days following the announcement, the Lance Armstrong Foundation was showered with donations and pledges of continued support for its mission of promoting cancer awareness and research.
Public relations professionals say that while the famous cyclist and cancer survivor remains a polarizing figure, even his naysayers will have a hard time turning their back on the foundation and its trademark Livestrong yellow bracelets.
Armstrong's decision not to contest the doping charges may allow both him and his charity to finally move on, they say.
“He never said he's guilty, he said he's sick of fighting,” said Peter Shankman, a vice president at the public relations firm Vocus Inc., noting that none of the allegations against Armstrong have been proven. “He becomes a hero in this.”
Armstrong, who retired a year ago and turns 41 next month, denies he ever took banned substances in his career, calling the US Anti-Doping Agency's investigation a “witch hunt” carried out without any physical evidence. He said Thursday he would no longer challenge the USADA's allegations and declined to enter the agency's arbitration process.
On Friday, the USADA wiped out 14 years of Armstrong's career and barred him from the sport for life. The agency took Armstrong's decision as an admission of guilt, branding as a drug cheat the man who had built a legend reaching cycling's pinnacle after overcoming life-threatening testicular cancer.
That same day Armstrong was banned, the number of donations to his foundation nearly doubled to $60 900 from $32 300 the day before. And the number of donations nearly tripled to 937 from 313 the day before, according to the foundation's data.
The money kept coming on Saturday with 373 people donating a total of $22 658. In comparison, just four people made donations on the previous Saturday, the foundation said.
“The foundation was grateful to be overwhelmed by an outpouring of support in the last few days,” Doug Ulman, the foundation's president and CEO, said in a statement. “The number of spontaneous donations and messages of solidarity from partners and supporters were amazing.”
Corporate sponsors including Nike Inc., Anheuser-Busch and sunglasses maker Oakley have pledged their continued support for the charity. Johnson Health Tech, which licenses the Livestrong brand for a line of exercise bikes and other work-out equipment, has also said it's sticking by the foundation.
And the home of Major League Soccer club Sporting Kansas City will continue to be called Livestrong Sporting Park. The club, which has promised to donate $7.5 million in stadium revenues to Armstrong's foundation over six years, says it will not consider renaming the Kansas City, Kansas, venue.
“Those who have been touched by cancer see Armstrong as an inspiration,” said Michael Shmarak, a vice president of DKC Public Relations in Chicago. “Brands recognize that power.”
But Shmarak added that he wouldn't be surprised if the foundation decided to rebrand itself a little, creating a new symbol and steering away from the yellow bracelets that reference the now-tainted Tour de France yellow jersey.
Stan Steinreich, CEO of Steinreich Communications Group in Fort Lee, New Jersey, said that once the initial spike in donations disappears, the foundation could lose a significant amount of funding, because some people won't want to have anything to do with Armstrong.
But in the long term, the charity is bound to rebound, because it has nothing to do with Armstrong's scandal, he said. It appears to pale, in public relations terms at least, in comparison with those involving other sports figures such as Tiger Woods and Michael Vick.
Over the past nearly 15 years, the foundation has raised nearly $500 million, partially though the sale of the yellow bracelets. Armstrong has said that his decision to not seek arbitration will allow him to focus more time on the foundation.
“I think the calculation he made was whatever effect these allegations have had, he did his jail time before the sentence was handed down,” Steinreich said. “His world can only get better now.”