London: Californian sunglasses maker Oakley has ended a sponsorship of Lance Armstrong that began 25 years ago when he was a teenage triathlete after the American was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles over a doping scandal. Oakley, owned by Italy's Luxottica (LUX.MI), became the latest sponsor to drop Armstrong after the International Cycling Union (UCI) on Monday ratified the United States Anti-Doping Agency's sanctions against the 41-year-old, banning him for life.
Dutch bank Rabobank ended its sponsorship of professional cycling last week, and there are fears the Armstrong case could lead to a broader flight from the sport by its commercial backers. However, Oakley said it would continue to support cycling as the sport tries to put its latest doping scandal behind it.
"We are still committed to the sport and will be putting our efforts towards promoting the new era of cycling," the company said in an e-mail statement in response to questions from Reuters. Oakley sponsors a number of leading cyclists, including Bradley Wiggins, who this year became the first Briton to win the Tour de France.
The company said it would continue to support the Livestrong cancer support charity founded by Armstrong, himself a cancer survivor, and told Reuters it had donated more than $10 million to the cause since 2007. Armstrong stepped down as chairman of the charity last week. Oakley said it signed its first endorsement agreement with Armstrong in 1987, when he was a young triathlete, on the recommendation of a bike retailer who sponsored him. The UCI decision left it no alternative but to terminate the agreement, it said.
"Our policy with our athletes is to support them until proven guilty by the highest governing body of sport or court of law," the company said. "Based on UCI's decision today and the overwhelming evidence that USADA presented, Oakley has severed its longstanding relationship with Lance Armstrong, effective immediately."
Oakley said it would not take legal action to try to recover any of the money it has spent on endorsing Armstrong. "We are deeply saddened by the situation, especially given our longstanding relationship, but we feel it is best for all involved to move on and collectively spend our energy rebuilding the sport of cycling," it said.
U.S. sportswear company Nike (NKE.N) last week terminated its contract with Armstrong and brewer Anheuser-Busch (ABI.BR) said it would end its relationship with him when their agreement expires at the end of 2012.