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A $100 Million Dollar Hoax

It was a yes-or-no question. Lance Armstrong looked Oprah straight in the eye and told the truth for the first time: without doping, he never would have won the Tour de France seven times. By that point, he had lost much more than his medals.

As a result of his lies and deception, the biggest star of the cycling world destroyed his reputation, his legacy and his business. Conservative estimates suggest he may have lost nearly $150 million in sponsorships alone.

The first to pull out was Nike. Their contract with Armstrong was worth more than $40 million. Other brands soon followed suit, including Trek Bicycle, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Oakley and Radio Shack.

We have entered a time where cheating is not an option. Transparency is valued more than ever, both figuratively and financially. The digital revolution has no place for cheaters. Perhaps Armstrong wasn’t aware?

The confession on Oprah put an end to a long and emotional journey of intrigue and rumors during which Armstrong tried—in vain—to defend his innocence.
There was a powerful motive behind his relentless denials: many of the world’s biggest brands threatened to withdraw their sponsorship if the rumors proved true. In the end, they did just that.

When Armstrong first began his deception, the world was a different place. Over a period of eight years, the suspicions were not enough to substantiate any accusations; a few rumors here and there didn’t mean much in 2005.

Until recently, people had few forms of expressing themselves to a large audience. Maybe they could write a letter to the editor of a newspaper. Or have a moment to speak their mind on the radio. Participation online has changed this forever. People influence people. Power is no longer concentrated among an elite few—now it is the people who have unlimited power.

Today, the social pressure that requires a public figure to be true to his or her word leaves no wriggle room. The millions of users in social networks, through their online comments and interactions with brands, set more precise limits than ever before.

Thanks to social networks, all it takes is a smartphone to shake up a company. A single comment on Facebook or Twitter can have far-reaching impact, thus empowering the commentator.

Nike learned the hard way. When Tiger Woods became the center of a sex scandal, the company gave him the benefit of the doubt and chose to continue supporting him—a choice that ended up costing them 105,000 customers, who had demanded that Nike take action.
In the Armstrong case, Nike was determined not to repeat their mistake. This time they took action immediately, a necessity in these fast-moving times. By taking the lead, they avoided a public relations backlash and were soon followed by other brands.
The case serves as an example that promises new chapters to come. What is clear is that the room for cheating and deception has shrunk in this new age. Winners don’t use drugs or performance enhancers. Neither sponsors nor the public will tolerate it when they do.

Get with the times. This is the new reality and it’s only going to get tougher.


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