Organizers of the charitable Half Full Triathlon are thrilled Lance Armstrong will compete in their October Howard County race.
But critics in the sports community aren't sharing their enthusiasm.
Because Armstrong has been banned for life from all sports governed by federations, organizers of the 3-year-old Half Full had to give up their status as a sanctioned race to welcome him, losing the prestige that comes with that status and opening the door to critics who say Armstrong's tarnished reputation stains the event.
Robert Villanueva, an avid triathlete from Baltimore County who came in third in Ulman's Half Full last year, planned to volunteer at the race this year. Then he heard Armstrong would be there.
"The race holds a special place in my heart, and he's there, and it ruins it for me," said Villanueva, who's particularly upset that race organizers let go of their sanctioned status to allow Armstrong to compete. "It says it's OK to bend the rules and to create a new set of rules for Lance."
Half Full organizers say Armstrong's presence at the event trumps official sanctioning. Race director Brian Satola said Thursday that the main purpose of the race is raising money for the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults and Armstrong's presence would energize the cause.
"This event will always be a platform to raise awareness of Ulman Cancer Fund, and having Lance here raises the visibility of our event and the cancer fight," said Satola, who's also the Ulman fund's COO. "Lance since day one has been a supporter of the fund and arguably the most visible cancer survivor in the world, and that does matter to us."
Ulman announced Wednesday that Armstrong would compete in the event's half distance, which includes a .9-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run. He'll race with cancer survivors in and around Centennial Park while athletes compete in a different segment of the race.
In August, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced that Armstrong had been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned for life from all sports governed by federations that are signatories to the World Anti-Doping Code.
Though Armstrong had repeatedly denied claims of cheating, he said he would not continue to fight the organization's doping allegations.
Earlier this month Armstrong was banned from the Chicago Marathon, which takes place Oct. 7, the same day as the Ulman race.
Organizers of the Boston and New York marathons have also said Armstrong was not welcome.
A sanctioned race is officially approved by USA Triathlon. In addition to providing liability insurance for the event, USA Triathlon grants events more prestige, mainly because the results and rankings count for pro or elite athletes.
Satola said Half Full organizers contacted USA Triathlon days ago to de-sanction their race, telling the governing body that they would find other avenues for insurance. As of Thursday morning, USA Triathlon still had the Half Full Race listed as sanctioned on its website, but officials said that would be removed.
A month ago, Armstrong competed in — and won — a nonsanctioned marathon in Steamboat Springs, Colo., his first race since his ban. Besides the Ulman Half Full, he's also scheduled to participate in the Superfrog Triathlon Sept. 30 in Coronado, Calif.
"I am looking forward to competing alongside my fellow cancer survivors," Armstrong said in a statement released by the Ulman Fund. "This race is a great example of what cancer survivorship is all about — not just surviving this disease, but truly living life on your own terms."
Armstrong has been one of the largest donors to the Ulman Cancer Fund, officials say. He gave the charity $100,000 in 2007 for a young adult patient navigation program in the Baltimore/Washington area. Doug Ulman, the founder of the fund, is president and CEO of the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
Jessie Benson, a 26-year-old marketing manager from Federal Hill, is thrilled that Armstrong will come to the triathlon and says it makes it exponentially more exciting for her to compete.
"Despite his ban, it's undeniable he's an incredible athlete and an inspiration for a lot of athletes," she said. "In my eyes, I don't care about the ban. He sort of stands for what life after cancer can look like."
Walt Schrading, a triathlete who lives in York, Pa., and has raised thousands of dollars for Armstrong's Livestrong Foundation, also thinks the athlete adds to the event.
Triathletes argued heatedly over the Armstrong news in niche online chat sites such as Slowtwitch.com, where some people expressed eagerness to shake his hand at the event and others threatened to pull out of it.
On the race's Facebook page, Eric Reid wrote: "Will you offer refunds to anyone who doesn't want to race with a convicted doper? You advertised as a USAT sanctioned race, and now you're not .... a lot of racers care about their USAT ranking."
Bobby Levin, co-owner of Fleet Feet Sports in Pikesville, agreed, saying sanctions mean something to serious athletes, and no hard-core competitor wants to hear that a race he's been training for is suddenly not official.
"He's skirting the decision," Levin said. "If everyone did that, then he would beat the system. The only redeeming feature here is the charity."
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