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Lance Armstrong: Not a lost cause

Earlier this month, Lance Armstrong participated in a triathlon in Columbia, benefiting the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults. Despite some poor weather, the event was an overwhelming success. People turned out in droves to watch Mr. Armstrong compete and to hear him speak at Centennial High School.

Like the spectators in Columbia and so many other people around the country, I am not prepared to write off Lance Armstrong as just the latest in a long line of professional athletes who have fallen from grace.

Mr. Armstrong may be the leader of the "most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen," according to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, but his legacy is about much more than his exploits on the bike.

To be clear, I believe the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports is wrong. I also believe that Lance Armstrong doped. Ergo, I believe Mr. Armstrong is wrong. Way wrong. And his misdeeds are being compounded by the fervor with which he denies his accusers. Despite being one of the most talented cyclists of his generation (yes, even with blood transfusions, winning seven Tours de France is nearly impossible), Mr. Armstrong now appears to be the John Gotti of the sport. Behind the scenes he was calculating, and in front of the cameras he was duplicitous.

Mr. Armstrong should take a page from the playbooks of so many other athletes tangled in webs of deceit: Stop the madness, admit wrongdoing, face the consequences, and get on with it. But I digress. Whether Mr. Armstrong fesses up or not, I maintain that his legacy will not be relegated to a series of asterisks. Nor should it be.

For more than a decade, Lance Armstrong has touched people in the most fundamental of ways. He has provided them with hope and inspiration. He has challenged people to look into themselves and to find the strength, courage and tenacity to face great adversity head on. Over the course of 16 years, he has built an organization, Livestrong, that itself has done immeasurable good, providing direct and indirect service to millions of people around the world.

Will the ripples of inspiration that have lapped against these millions of cancer survivors now be obviated as a result of his improprieties? I don't believe they will be.

Every day, politicians make choices about which constituency groups to embrace, in order to grow their supporter base. To oversimplify matters, when a politician is faced with a major scandal, his or her ability to weather the storm becomes a function of the level of crime, taking a conciliatory stance, and the strength of the supporter base. This is why someone like Bill Clinton can rise from the depths of an impeachment hearing and leave the Oval Office with the highest end-of-office approval rating of any U.S. president since World War II.

I use this example not to create a justification for breaking rules but to demonstrate why Mr. Armstrong's situation differs from other athlete-related scandals. Simply stated, he has a much stronger base vis-à-vis the cancer community than in the sporting world.

In 2012, the NBC Sports Group reported an average of 409,000 viewers for each stage of the Tour de France. Also for 2012, the American Cancer Society estimated that 1.6 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed. Studies by the National Cancer Institute showed that in 2008, there were almost 12 million people living with cancer in the U.S.

The counterpoint to this argument is that people were duped into supporting Livestrong (formerly the Lance Armstrong Foundation) — inspired under false pretenses. Many have said that Mr. Armstrong leveraged his undeserved success to take advantage of donors and to fuel his own personal brand. To be certain, some donors are going to feel hoodwinked. But early indications show that the Livestrong base of supporters is rallying around the foundation and Mr. Armstrong.

A recent article in USA Today said that "Since August, when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced it would ban Armstrong for life and strip his Tour titles, the number of people turning to Livestrong for financial, emotional and practical services has risen by nearly 15 percent, according to the charity. Over the same period, the dollar amount of donations has increased by about 8 percent from the previous year, up to about $3.4 million."

I am not an absolutist. I believe that people are complex and nuanced, that the human condition is one of imperfection. People are fallible, myself included. They make mistakes. Some even deny making them. So when it comes to evaluating the deeds of a fellow human, I try to avoid making broad generalizations. Instead, like an accountant, I base my opinions on an analysis of one's perceived assets and liabilities.

By my accounting, the amount of good that Lance Armstrong has brought to this world still outweighs the amount of bad. I believe he has the potential to get beyond this scandal and to deliver untold benefits to millions of people in the years ahead.

Mr. Armstrong is savvy. He will realize what needs to be done. It will start with an apology.

Rich Polt is a passionate cyclist who enjoys riding in Baltimore and the surrounding counties. He is also principal of a public relations firm that helps business and organizational leaders build and sustain their personal brands. His email is rich@communicategood.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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