It’s Not About the Lab Rats

If Lance Armstrong went to jail and Livestrong went away, that would be a huge setback in our war against cancer, right? Not exactly, because the ­famous nonprofit donates almost ­nothing to scientific research. The author looks at where the money goes and finds a mix of fine ideas, millions of dollars aimed at “awareness,” and a few very blurry lines.

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    It’s a journalistic axiom that when your phone rings early on a Monday, from a blocked number, it’s generally not because somebody loves your work. I picked up to hear an angry Lance Armstrong on the line, along with Doug Ulman, the CEO of the Lance Armstrong Foundation—a.k.a. Livestrong. It was 8 a.m. in Austin. They were calling to berate me about what they considered my bias against Livestrong and Lance.

    Which seemed strange, since I wasn’t working on a Livestrong article. Not yet, anyway. Granted, I’d been sniffing around and had posted a tweet or two, but nothing more. One of those posts was written on April 17, 2011, the day 60 Minutes aired its report on Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute. According to allegations made by Steve Kroft and Jon Krakauer, Mortenson had used foundation money to fly himself around and promote his books, which were full of lies about his adventures in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the charges went, the organization wasn’t operating nearly as many schools as Mortenson liked to claim.

    60 Minutes takedown,” I tweeted, “just goes to show that ‘awareness’ is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Admittedly, I had both Mortenson and Armstrong in mind when I wrote this: both were facing legal investigations, and both would end up using their philanthropic work as part of their PR defense. The “awareness” wording was a jab at Livestrong, since raising cancer awareness is a major part of the organization’s mission.


Originally published in Outside, February 2012