AUSTIN, Texas - Lance Armstrong stepped down as chairman of his Livestrong anti-cancer charity on Wednesday as Nike broke all ties with the disgraced cycling star over “seemingly insurmountable evidence” of doping.
Fallout from a doping scandal that led to a life ban for Armstrong and the stripping of his seven Tour de France titles forced Armstrong to leave behind the foundation he created in 1997 to inspire cancer survivors like himself.
“To spare the foundation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding my cycling career, I will conclude my chairmanship,” Armstrong said in a statement posted on the Livestrong website.
Armstrong had been an inspirational figure for millions after recovering from testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs and then winning the world’s most celebrated cycling event seven times in a row.
But the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) banned Armstrong and took away his titles in August after he chose not to fight the doping accusations, claims USADA outlined in a report unveiled last week.
More than 1,000 pages of evidence, including testimony against Armstrong from 11 former teammates and 26 witnesses in all, proved too much for sportswear giant Nike to continue to stand by the cyclist as it had for months.
“Due to the seemingly insurmountable evidence that Lance Armstrong participated in doping and misled Nike for more than a decade, it is with great sadness that we have terminated our contract with him,” Nike’s statement said.
“Nike plans to continue support of the Livestrong initiatives created to unite, inspire and empower people affected by cancer.”
The moves came as the International Cycling Union (UCI) faced growing pressure to reveal how the 41-year-old American was able to escape detection for so long.
Although fingers have pointed at Armstrong for years, the UCI, cycling’s governing body, has never sanctioned him and it has since been suggested that some officials looked the other way.
UCI is considering the sanctions imposed by USADA. Rejecting them would likely set up a fight with USADA in the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Legal experts have said the sheer and unprecedented volume and detail of the USADA allegations could lead US prosecutors and companies to consider fresh criminal and civil actions against Armstrong.
“Lance Armstrong stepping down as chairman of the foundation and Nike dumping him were inevitable once the report came out last week,” Ashley McCown, president of Solomon McCown, a Boston-based public relations firms specializing in crisis communications, told AFP by e-mail.
“The findings in the report were too damning to ignore. Lance Armstrong is a brand unto himself. And Nike as a premiere brand cannot afford to have its image tarnished.
“Lance is damaged goods and he should not expect any corporate sponsor to come knocking at his door any time soon.”
Nike has a history of staying with embattled sports stars, having continued to sponsor golf star Tiger Woods after his infamous sex scandal.
The firm also renewed ties with American football star Michael Vick after his prison stay for his role in a dogfight gambling ring.
But Vick and Woods were able to resume their sports careers, an option the USADA ban has closed for Armstrong.
His recent attempts to compete in world-class triathlons are also out, although he can compete at lesser events as he did earlier this month.
Armstrong’s Livestrong exit comes two days before he is due to speak at a 15th anniversary gala for the charity in his hometown of Austin, Texas. Livestrong has raised nearly $500 million since 1997.
“It has been a great privilege to help grow it from a dream into an organization that today has served 2.5 million people and helped spur a cultural shift in how the world views cancer survivors,” Armstrong said.
Livestrong’s iconic yellow wristband was launched in 2004 in collaboration with Nike. More than 80 million Livestrong wristbands have been sold, donations that were in part inspired by Armstrong’s now-tainted cancer comeback.
Armstrong has always maintained he did not take banned substances, but said he would not fight the USADA charges after losing a US federal court case challenging the group’s appeals process and jurisdiction.
“The evidence shows beyond any doubt that the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team ran the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen,” USADA chief executive Travis T. Tygart said.