Nobody knows if the story is true but people say during the 1948 Senate elections Lyndon Johnson’s campaign team thought about smearing a rival. But when an aide pointed out the smear wasn’t true, Johnson replied “Of course it’s not true. That’s not the point. Tell it anyway, and make him deny it“. Johnson later become President, following Jack Kennedy’s assassination. Simply being forced to deny something can be damaging.
Even if Armstrong never had so much as a vitamin injection during his career then the weight of circumstantial evidence and the extensive enquiry is tarnishing his name. Armstrong was once a perfect brand. Just one Tour de France win can be a big deal in the US, Greg LeMond was Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year” after his success in 1989. But Armstrong’s powerful tale of recovery from illness coupled with seven wins and worldwide TV coverage made him an advertiser’s dream.
But this is all gone. Images of hope and success are diluted by allegations and suspicion. Few companies will see him in the same light, they are risk-averse and don’t want a front man with question marks over his past.
At best, if cleared, he will come out as a dogged fighter struggling with detractors. If he’s found to have doped then it’s about damage limitation and trying to convince people that it was par for the course, that there’s still something impressive about recovering from cancer and winning.
But as another US President learned, it’s not wrong-doing that gets you in trouble, it’s the cover-up. The Watergate scandal finished Nixon’s presidency not just because he was spying on his rivals, but because he lied about it: when exposed it meant few could ever believe him again. Similarly, “Pro cyclist doped” is not a headline but “Armstrong lied” would be a big deal.
Either way we’ll see which way the investigation goes. It’s hard to tell what is happening but it reads as if Armstrong and his advisors have settled for damage limitation. There are no protestations of innocence. Instead it’s about undermining witnesses, claiming the investigation is unfair and highlighting Armstrong’s fundraising power.
In short, Armstrong’s days as a big name celebrity are over. He can sit back and count his money but the days of being regarded as a prime asset for marketing are well over.