Lance Armstrong: End of the road, or ride into the sunset smiling

Lance Armstrong, dead or alive.

Those seem to be the culminating split attitudes of people after more than a decade of rumors, innuendo and crisis for the world’s best-known cyclist. Earlier this summer, three former Armstrong lieutenants took plea deals with the United States Anti-Doping Agency, and Armstrong Friday apparently therefore threw in the towel, something he never did during his racing career.

Now most social media comments are either supportive — especially given the $500 million his Livestrong Foundation raised to fight cancer — or dismissively critical of Armstrong. I fall somewhere in between, disappointed that his athletic mastery and human drive will forever now be officially tied, at least somewhat, to performance-enhancing drugs.

But like the monstrous home runs of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, Armstrong’s heroic climbs in the Tour de France, his competitive fire, his dogged triumphs, are no less exciting today even if they are tainted like those homers.

Yet in this space we discuss crisis management. And as a crisis manager, Armstrong seems equally as adept as a cyclist or cancer survivor turned fundraiser.

The single best result in a crisis is ending it. Armstrong never let his USADA “arbitration” get started. No embarrassing testimony, no crimson-faced admissions.

“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Armstrong said in a statement. “For me, that time is now.”       

Armstrong, who turns 41 next month, said he would not contest the charges because it had taken too much of a toll on his family and his work for his cancer foundation, saying he was “finished with this nonsense.”   

Armstrong basically pleaded nolo contendere, that obscure, legalistic right and rite, like pleading the Fifth Amendment, that says one thing and everyone interprets in the opposite way. He officially declined to participate in the process. He’s acting like a corporation that pays a multi-million dollar fine, while officially admitting no guilt. Armstrong declined to contend the charges.

This ends the crisis. In time, I’d venture that his unprecedented seven [and] consecutive Tour de France titles stand and he remains one of history’s great cyclists. No one can turn those years into an asterisk. Further, he denied satisfaction to the mob that wanted him run out of town on a seatless bike.

It’s a smart and, of course coming from Armstrong, competitive move. He was always about one-upping his opponent, crushing the competitor’s psyche and will as well as his chances. In the now infamous Sports Illustrated profile of Armstrong ahead of his fourth or fifth Tour win, the reporter asked Armstrong’s then five-year-old son what his father did for a living.

The cute, blonde lad responded: “He makes them pay.”

Armstrong made his tormenters pay as he did his Tour rivals. He walked out of a figurative drug court a free man, unencumbered by Tour titles no one can really take from him, still clutching his 83 maillot jaunes. His paychecks were long ago cashed and tens of millions of yellow Livestrong wrist bands remain on as many wrists.

Armstrong the cyclist mastered strategy, making the key move at precisely the correct moment that would deliver victory. So dominant was his mind that watching the Tour years later provides ironic reinforcement of how he haunts the July spectacle even today.

On their televised stages, the legendary British commentators Phil Liggett and Phil Sherwin will try to predict when a current contender will break away and try to wrest the race on an historic climb. Yet day after day in recent years, no one does. They survive to the top with little to distinguish them besides their survivability. And close followers of the Tour realize that Liggett’s and Sherwin’s predictions are really saying, ‘this is where Lance would make his move.’ Because the rest are pale imitators of his greatness, his flare for the jugular.

Crisis ended, Armstrong moves on into the world of Ironman competitions, secure in his own legacy.

He never tested positive for banned substances. Nonetheless, he’s substantially banned from claiming his victories. But the inquisition ends. And Armstrong rides off into the sunset unbowed, crisis averted.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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