joeldurston

Why Lance Armstrong’s philanthropy’s tainted

In Sport on October 21, 2012 at 9:38 PM

*written as part of a debate piece*

So it appears Lance Armstrong was living very strong indeed. Yet somehow many still describe him as a ‘legend’. Truelad, despite the crassness and misogyny, is a good litmus test for such modern morality tests among average sports-watchers. And two recent posts, proclaiming him still a ‘legend’ for his cancer recovery and consequent philanthropy, find broad approval for the former cyclist, with ‘GoodLAD’ to ‘ShitLAD’ ratios of about 2:1 and 18:5 respectively.

Undoubtedly, Livestrong has done wonders for raising funding for, and awareness of, cancer – diseases which tragically take the lives of millions. So, essentially, a Good Thing. And no doubt, the vast majority of the people, paid or not, who have worked for it have done so precisely because of their good, trusting nature.

The means are an infinitely messier affair than the ends, though, and it’s certainly debatable whether the latter justifies the former. The question of whether charities should accept donations from tax avoiders and crooks is a troublesome one, and, in principle, this issue represents a similarly interesting moral maze, especially as the protagonist is so high-profile, rich and successful.

In today’s world a celebrity publically promoting their own philanthropic foundation, in effect at least, represents a statement on the morals of the individual in question, whether they like it or not. Basically, affecting their PR, usually positively. I’m not sure if it’s necessarily so, but it’s hard to deny it’s so, not least with the incredible story of Lance Armstrong, who recovered from testicular cancer with an estimated 10% chance of survival.

It’s easy to be cynical about do-goody celebrities. I’m actually broadly in favour, as those in the spotlight have a great platform to effect change – but to ignore the propensity for such philanthopy to be hectoring, shameless PR, a substitute for tax avoidance, a cover-up for fundamental deceit and hypocrisy, or a combination of all three, is plain naive. The latter is certainly in evidence with the current Jimmy Savile scandal, as many in positions of responsibility have admitted to being wary of investigating his now-known child abuse because his charity work suggested he was a caring man who wouldn’t do such things and that his philanthropy may stop if he was opposed. I think Armstrong’s case is largely analogous.

It’s hard to know exactly where Armstrong’s motivations lie in regard to Livestrong (because let’s face it, we can’t really trust what he says now); but one thing you can be sure about is that his doping was thorough and calculated, involving widescale ‘bullying’ and coercion of riders, a fostering of a code of ‘omerta’ and aggressive lawsuits against those who voiced dissent – USADA, former masseuse Emma O’Reilly and journalist David Walsh . Therefore it’s fairly safe to say he would be fully aware of the resulting trusting effect, in the public eye, of his notable charity work, and the egregious divide between the very good (at least, separately) and the very bad. In this interview on doping in sport, in which a plain-faced Armstrong denounces doping – from a health and moral standpoint – and discusses prevention techniques, he claims (at 4:35): “In my case, I came out of a life-threatening disease; I was on my deathbed. Do you really think I’m going to come back into a sport and say, o.k, doctor,  give me everything you got, I just want to go fast. No way! I would never do that.” Certainly seems like a fairly concrete, intentional link between the positive image from his philanthropy and the doping cover-up to me.

This ultimately toxic combination of trust and fear allowed him to win millions (£2.4m of which he has been ordered to pay back to the Tour de France and hasn’t replied) and perpetuate a con which the Union Cycliste Internationale’s chief Pat McQuaid has called cycling’s “greatest ever crisis”. Put two and two together and it seems Livestrong played a pivotal role in fostering this atmosphere of silenced reverence. So, though I’m by no means calling all Livestrong’s fundraising dirty money or all its efforts a scam, that the shame-faced corruption came from the highest point, and prospered, leaves a very sour taste.

Joel Durston

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