CHICAGO – Leaders of the cancer charity founded by Lance Armstrong struck a determined, sometimes defiant tone on Thursday as they declared the organization will persevere in the wake of the cyclist’s admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs.
“I am on safe ground to say that the past year did not go as planned,” Livestrong’s executive vice president Andy Miller said at The Livestrong Foundation’s annual meeting in Chicago. “Things happen that we cannot control – cancer has taught us that. What do we do? We adapt.”
He added later, “This is our message to the world: The Livestrong Foundation is not going anywhere.”
The meeting, its first such gathering since Armstrong’s troubled departure in October, comes amid a swirl of uncertainty about whether donors could back away or whether people worldwide will stop showing their support by purchasing the foundation’s trademark yellow “Livestrong” bracelets.
Addressing some 500 people in his 30-minute keynote speech, Miller mentioned Armstrong by name only four times.
But there was no mistaking what he meant by the foundation being “caught in the crossfire of the media frenzy.”
Livestrong’s president, Doug Ulman, echoed Miller’s sentiments in prepared remarks.
“Our success has never been based on one person,” said Ulman, who was unable to deliver the speech in person because of travel delays. “Will the Livestrong Foundation survive? Yes. Absolutely, yes.”
A common theme Thursday was disappointment in Armstrong’s actions but gratitude for how he parlayed his fame into raising cancer awareness.
“We were deeply disappointed when we learned along with the rest of the world that we had been misled during and after Lance’s cycling career,” Miller said. “We accepted the apology ... and we remain grateful for what he decided to create and helped build.”
Among the steps the organization is taking to establish a new identity is to change its day of action each year from Oct. 2 – the date in 1996 that Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer – to May 17, the group announced Thursday.
On that day in 2004, the charity launched their yellow bands. Since then, 87 million have been sold, Katherine McLane, the group’s executive vice president for communications, said.
There has been no indication, she said, that donors are distancing themselves from the charity, which raised $48 million in 2012.
That was 2 or 3 percent less than fundraising in 2011 but consistent with slight dropoffs other foundations saw in a still-struggling economy, she said.
The cyclist created the organization – originally called the Lance Armstrong Foundation – in Austin, Texas, in 1997 while he was being treated for testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs. Doctors gave him 50-50 odds of surviving.
Throughout his career, Armstrong always denied drug use, but earlier this year, he admitted during an interview with Oprah Winfrey that he used performance-enhancing drugs.
He told Winfrey that leaving Livestrong was the most “humbling” experience after the revelations about his drug use broke.
“I wouldn’t at all say forced out, told to leave,” he told Winfrey about Livestrong. “I was aware of the pressure. But it hurt like hell.
“That was the lowest,” Armstrong said. “The lowest.”
In an interview later Thursday, Miller said Armstrong wasn’t formally asked to resign after admitting the use of performance-enhancing drugs. It wasn’t even clear, he added, that there was a provision in the organization’s bylaws to ask the founder to leave.
“It ultimately had to be his decision,” he said.
During his time as chairman, Armstrong was the biggest single donor to the foundation, and Miller declined to say if Armstrong might continue to contribute or whether – at some point – he could be asked to play a role in the charity again.
But when asked if Livestrong would ever seek a new celebrity to be its face, he was quick to answer.
“No. ... We won’t go that route,” he said. “It’s risky for any organization to have one person as a spokesman – to put all your eggs in one basket. If something happens to that person, you’re in trouble.”