Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Trust, drugs and heroes

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Lance Armstrong's Livestrong has raised US$470 million. Photo / AP
Lance Armstrong's Livestrong has raised US$470 million. Photo / AP

There's an intriguing paradox arising from Lance Armstrong's drugs decision. What was effectively the outing of a drugs cheat (although he maintains his innocence) saw 25 times more donations to his cancer charity Livestrong.

That happened after Armstrong decided not to contest accusations he used performance-enhancing drugs, including steroids and blood boosters, and participated in a complex doping scheme while winning the Tour de France from 1999-2005. He faces a life ban and loss of his titles.

There is now an important sub-text: the possibility that Livestrong will wither along with Armstrong's reputation.

I have to declare an interest here, although I have never donated to nor used any Livestrong materials - for reasons that will become clear later. As a cancer survivor, I am acutely aware of the power of positive thinking and the value of awareness - Livestrong's two principal items-in-stock.

It was only awareness that took me to my GP with a minor complaint. Typical bloke, I would never normally have gone for something so piffling. It was caught early and, over a year later and after some complications, two big operations, excellent medical advice and a supportive employer, I am clear of the wretched disease. Positive thinking played a part in that - broadly the same sort of thinking that led Armstrong through a successful fight against testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs. He then established Livestrong, a successful charity.

Another declaration - I am also a proponent of severely punishing drugs cheats in sport. This column has been the seat of arguments for a lifetime ban on those who take to the needle or the bottle for personal gain.

Just before the London Olympics, I argued that three former athletes banned for drugs should not be allowed to compete and I cheered when one of them, La Shawn Merritt, pulled up lame defending his Olympic 400m crown. I booed at the TV when Alexandre Vinokourov won the Olympic cycling road race - five years after he was chucked out of the Tour de France for blood doping. He should not have been allowed on the start line, let alone win the gold medal.

So you see the conundrum. I steered away from Livestrong because of the founder's drugs issues but acknowledged he had helped countless people in the same boat as me. The journalist in me curls his lip at Armstrong's decision not to contest the USADA accusations; the cancer survivor inside wildly applauds him.

* * *

Livestrong and Armstrong are inextricably entwined.

If that wasn't clear before, it was when Armstrong revealed donations to Livestrong had shot up 25 times the day after the revelations.

Livestrong has its own CEO (salary: US$320,000 a year), large staff and a thriving revenue of about US$48 million last year. It has raised about US$470 million, including cash from donors around the world - the iconic yellow wristband is arguably one of the world's most recognised items of apparel. More than 81 per cent of Livestrong's total income has been invested in cancer awareness programmes, initiatives and advocacy.

In 2005, the last time Armstrong won the Tour de France, revenue grew to US$52 million, fuelled largely by the famous wristband. When Armstrong retired, revenue was down US$20 million the following year. It stayed down until his comeback in 2009 when he rode the Tour again, earned a podium finish and said he was doing so "for free" - no salary, no payments - to publicise efforts against cancer. Livestrong income cruised back up over the US$40 million mark.

Cynics see things differently. "The issue with Lance Armstrong isn't whether he has done good for cancer victims," one wrote on a Fraudbytes blog, "but rather, whether he first cheated to beat his opponents, then used his fraudulent titles to help promote an organisation that appears to do good but also enriches a fraudster."

Spoken like someone who has never had cancer. "Cancer victims" think it is very much about doing good for cancer victims, believe me. Many outraged at Armstrong forget there may be a greater truth at work, accidentally or not.

Some detractors say Armstrong has used the fame and some of the money derived from Livestrong to line his own pockets - never really substantiated and, even were it true, so what? Livestrong wouldn't exist without him. Cynics also say Armstrong and his supporters used his cancer work to deflect the doping allegations. Maybe, but that work has been effective. It means he's not just a sportsman, he's an inspirational figure.

That's the problem. Livestrong may well follow his demise, in spite of the short-term support. A charity supposedly built on trust may not survive a massive loss of trust in its central figure.

Or could it? Nike, his principal supporter, has stayed on board. If Armstrong can find ways of keeping himself in the limelight, it just may be that his good works will outlive his downfall - no matter what motives are ascribed to them.

Cancer patients often need the hope that something like Livestrong gives them and the advocacy of an Armstrong who talks about "kicking cancer's butt" and fighting hard.It offers a way of helping tackle the problem that even operations, chemotherapy and organic treatments can't. Cancer patients need an active, tangible attitude against an enemy they can't see. They are interested in research that may yield far-off results, sure, but it's the present that really concerns them.

Opponents say his cheating has cheated those who follow him on the cancer front too. But this is a moral standpoint that many cancer patients have no time for. They are, after all, among the most drugged-up people on the planet. They don't necessarily care that Armstrong took PEDs. They care that he beat cancer.

Even now Armstrong has been thrown off his bike, it may be that he and Livestrong will help new generations.

I'm glad the long-suspected drugs issues are out there - but hope Livestrong continues to live strong. Not for Armstrong's sake, but for those who need help.

- Herald on Sunday

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