Lance Armstrong's Fall From Grace: What Does it Mean for His Legacy? (VIDEO)
But now it's all come crashing down. After the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released a damning report revealing his deep involvement in a clandestine doping ring, Armstrong stepped down as chairman of Livestrong on Wednesday.
"I am deeply grateful to the people of the foundation who have done such hard and excellent work over the last 15 years, building tangible and effective ways to improve the lives of cancer survivors," he said in a statement on the group’s website. "It has been a great privilege to help grow it from a dream into an organization that today has served 2.5 million people.... This organization, its mission and its supporters are incredibly dear to my heart."
So what does it all mean for the cycling champ's legacy?
Hot on the heels of Armstrong's resignation announcement, Nike cut ties with the former cyclist. "Due to the seemingly insurmountable evidence that Lance Armstrong participated in doping and misled Nike for more than a decade, it is with great sadness that we have terminated our contract with him,” the sports company said in a statement on its website. "Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner."
"I think his career has reached sadly to a new low," Howard Bragman, Vice Chairman of Reputation.com, tells Celebuzz. "He's lost millions in endorsements, he's lost the prestige of winning multiple Tour de France [titles], he's endured public humiliation and had to step down [from Livestrong]. His legacy is horribly tarnished and battered."
After Armstrong reached great heights in road racing, why is his entire reputation is now being redefined by this spiraling scandal? Because the negatives outweigh the positives, explains Monica Cost, Chief Brand Strategist of Evidently Assured LLC. "Unfortunately, negative attachment is...the easiest thing to use to describe people," she says. "His entire career had been built around honesty and integrity…and now it's been called into question, so it's hard to let go. I think that it will stick with him."
And the fact that fans held Armstrong on a high-and-mighty pedestal only means that he has further to fall now. "For those people who had Lance in the mini-God-like category and are just appalled by what they now believe, they are hurt," adds Cost. "They believed he was a stand-up guy. He was pristine, and very clean, and honest. Now, after these reports, they don't believe that these things are true. So I think that it will continue to impact his brand...[because] his integrity is being challenged...when that was what his brand was built on."
But can Livestrong bounce back from this scandal? "I hope [Armstrong's] personal foibles don't destroy the organization," says Bragman. "It's too important an organization. The need is too great out there. I sincerely hope that the organization survives without him." Between the lines of the organization's announcement of Armstrong stepping down, "the message I was reading was that Livestrong is bigger than Lance Armstrong," Bragman explains. "I personally hope it is."
"Livestrong is so much bigger than Lance is right now," Cost agrees. "It is still encouraging cancer survivors and those who are fighting it to keep living. From a brand standpoint, it is synonymous with cancer survivors. I think it's great that it's Livestrong, and not Livestrong with Armstrong, because the attachment to his name is not there."
In terms of its fundraising efforts, "I think it will take some time for donors and supporters to kind of digest what was said, and what’s happening, and what it means, and how they feel about it," says Cost. "I think certainly individual donors and people who absolutely believe the report that will pull away. But I think there are so many people who have been positively impacted that over time the organization will survive."
So after moving on from his cycling career and now his charity leadership position, what should Armstrong do? "He should figure out what his bigger mission in life is right now," says Cost. "He should stay away from the cycling world and things around sports, and stick with the human-interest piece of his life. And if he is planning on coming back in any way, [his PR team] needs to figure out pretty quickly what his overarching message will be...and create some soundbites." Despite all the headline-hitting controversy, "I do think he can recover."
But Bragman fears Armstrong may not be able to dig himself out of this deep hole. "I don't know how he is going to save his image at this point," he says. But "I think he should shut up right now. He would be well advised to take a lower key public poster for a while and see how this all unfolds."
At the end of the day, though, "I don't think we can forget the good Lance Armstrong has done in this world," admits Bragman. "I will never forget what Lance Armstrong has done. I don't think we can. And I don't think we should."