Jill Warren Lucas
Lance Armstrong may be forever branded as a liar or worse by cycling fans, sponsors, sports councils and legal authorities for his belated confession to using banned performance-enhancing drugs.
But not everyone is dismissing him as just another disgraced athlete. Those who have benefitted from his LIVESTRONG foundation, from which he resigned in October, prefer to focus on the cancer survivor’s generous support of cancer-related causes.
According to its website, LIVESTRONG has raised more than $400 million since 1997 for the fight against cancer, with 82 cents of every dollar going directly to support its programs and services.
LIVESTRONG supports several charities in North Carolina, including Camp Kesem in Raleigh, which provides weeklong summer getaways for children whose parents are battling the disease. The foundation’s support had been central to its ability to grow and serve more children nationwide, says Abby O’Leary, a Camp Kesem national program director.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that our relationship with LIVESTRONG really transformed the organization in a very short time,” says O’Leary, explaining that a 2011 leadership grant enabled Camp Kesem to expand from 23 to 37 programs in a single year. “Having the LIVESTRONG brand of approval really helped us to bring our program to new families and communities that had never heard of us before.”
Camp Kesem continues to thrive and will open four more programs this summer. The Raleigh camp was launched as its second branch in 2003 and has become one of its largest and most successful. This summer, it will offer a second week of camp to provide more opportunities to children from across the state.
Andy Alcon’s four young children attended Camp Kesem for the first time in August 2011. Nine days after they returned home to Charlotte, their mother died of cancer.
“They needed that respite, and she was glad that they had the chance to go,” says Alcon, adding his kids not only will attend a third, all-expenses-paid session this summer but also hope to eventually return as counselors. “You know it’s good for them when they have that kind of reaction and commitment.”
Alcon knew that Armstong was a key funder and hopes that LIVESTRONG will continue to support the program. “They don’t make the camp about your parent having cancer, but they provide opportunities for kids to have discussions,” he says, noting his children have formed bonds with counselors and fellow campers. “I don’t agree with what he did, and maybe he deserves to have his knuckles rapped. But you can’t let that detract from something positive like this.”
Misty Guinn agrees. “For our participants, he still is a beacon of hope. He had a vision that no one would go through this alone,” says the Community Social Responsibility Director at the Asheville YMCA, which offers a LIVESTRONG program designed for cancer survivors and their family. “Despite what other people say, they still lift him up for that work and all he’s gone through himself.”
The free, 12-week program – which currently has more than 100 people on a waiting list – offers cardiovascular and strength training, as well as a stretch-and-share component. “For some members, it’s the first time they have talked to anyone else about their experience, or been seen without their wig,” Guinn says. “They see Lance Armstrong as a philanthropist who understands them.”
There are plenty of people who view Armstrong very differently. Former teammates, who Armstrong admits to having bullied into silence, are speaking out. Last fall, he was stripped of his seven Tour de France wins and lost several profitable endorsement deals. On Thursday, the same day his confession interview with Oprah Winfrey was televised, the International Olympic Committee asked him to return the bronze medal he received at the 2000 games in Sydney.
Additionally, Armstrong may have to pay back millions of dollars to sponsors, including the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service, for contract violations. Sales of LIVESTRONG branded items, ranging from the once ubiquitous yellow wristbands to sports gear and a $57 silk bowtie, are likely to decline.
Advocates like Alcon and O’Leary are hopeful that such troubles will not affect LIVESTRONG’s ability to fund meaningful programs. “Obviously, it’s a tough time for the foundation in terms of figuring out where they go next,” O’Leary says. “Every indication we’ve had is that they remain committed to their community partners.”
Andrew Tanker, a member of the public relations staff at LIVESTRONG and a 2006 graduate of NC State University, is confident about LIVESTRONG’s future. “I have no reason to believe people won’t continue to support such a great cause and allow us to continue to help the 28 million people around the world who are counting on us,” he says.
Armstrong’s disclosure and the strong reactions that followed may be without comparison in the philanthropic environment. Pam Kohl, executive director of the Susan G. Komen, Race for the Cure North Carolina Triangle to the Coast Affiliate, is quick to distinguish Armstrong’s issues with the controversy Komen experienced in January 2012 regarding a decision to withdraw funding from Planned Parenthood.
“It’s just two totally different situations. What went on with Komen was one decision that was made and then rescinded,” Kohl says. “But it did have an impact. Participation in our race that spring was down about 30 percent. However, it is interesting to note that the Charlotte race which was just held in October did not see a decrease in fundraising.”
Quick response and transparent transactions helped to stabilized circumstances at Komen, and Kohl hopes LIVESTRONG will similarly recover.
“You never want to be in the middle of a firestorm if you don’t have to be,” Kohl says. “All of those things are distractions to the real work. And for us, that work is about saving lives and supporting folks who are facing a scary and hard time. In our service area in Eastern North Carolina, we know there’s an 11 percent higher breast cancer rate, and there’s a 20 percent higher breast cancer mortality rate. Changing those numbers is what we stay focused on.
“Because of that, we are eager, enthusiastic and thrilled about any dollars that go to cancer research,” she adds. “That’s what we care about.”
The American Cancer Society takes a similar view. A spokesman declined to comment directly on the Armstrong situation but provided this statement:
“The American Cancer Society and LIVESTRONG share a mission to reduce global suffering and death from cancer, which causes one in eight deaths worldwide and is rapidly becoming a global pandemic. The Society, along with so many others, has witnessed LIVESTRONG’s powerful commitment to improving the quality of life of those with cancer, and fighting cancer globally.
“It is our hope that the organization will continue its important work. Reducing suffering and death from cancer is a moral imperative, and LIVESTRONG’s contribution is sorely needed.”