Lance Armstrong, champion of seven Tour De France cycling races, international spokesperson, celebrity cancer survivor who channeled his courage and inspiration into the Livestrong charity, is trying to rebuild his tarnished reputation with an upcoming mea culpa on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. The most famous personality in the history of competitive cycling, has been stripped of most of his titles, awards and honorary degrees due to his alleged use of performance enhancement drugs. Recent new evidence presented by the US Anti-Doping Agency after a lengthy investigation revealed more alleged improprieties and a cover up at the highest levels of U.S. cycling. Even Nike, which vowed to support the beleaguered cyclist no matter what, pulled out of its sponsorship deal with Armstrong. Armstrong was forced to resign from the board of his own Livestrong foundation, so the doping allegations would not diminish or detract from Livestrong’s ability to raise money.
But the question remains, can Lance Armstrong repair his reputation? Some suggest that Armstrong is not really emerging as the villain – but more as a victim of the US Anti-Doping Agency’s “fanatical” need to target Armstrong, forcing him to give up his honors in light of charges that have yet to be proven. While many admit there may be overwhelming proof of Armstrong’s guilt, people still have a hard time “hating” the cyclist or even “caring” if he is guilty or not.
A journalist from Sports Illustrated, who believes Armstrong is guilty, wrote, “Armstrong was losing this battle…He is banking on one thing here: That we don’t care if he used drugs. He is probably right. We don’t care… Most Americans only cared about the Tour de France because Armstrong won it; now that those wins are gone, we don’t care about the event anymore… As time went on, the people who cared realized he had probably been cheating. And the people who just liked Lance Armstrong didn’t care.”
A writer for Bicycling magazine captured what most Armstrong fans probably really feel –ambivalence: a combination of mistrust for the athlete in light of so many allegations and his inability to proclaim his innocence with any conviction and admiration for his athletic prowess and his will to beat cancer. The reporter writes, “And like most cycling fans – aside from those who wish at any cost to either beautify him or crucify him…the strength of my belief that Armstrong could have accomplished all that without doping ebbed and flowed…however, his …critics are going to end up frustrated. He might lose his jerseys but I don’t think he’ll be judged guilty – in a court anyway – of any crime related to doping… ”
At some point, Lance Armstrong may apologize to the millions of fans he let down or the charity he built on a legacy of fraud and duplicity – drawing much of its power from the image of the record-setting cyclist overcoming whatever obstacles, natural and man-made, that stood in his path. Today, Lance Armstrong’s biggest challenge is himself. For a reputation management campaign to be successful, Armstrong will need to first apologize with complete sincerity and without equivocation or ambiguity and Oprah is the perfect forum for a public apology. America loves a good comeback story. Lance already has written one. The question is whether he has the strength for another.