Lance Armstrong, the hero turned doping villain of cycling, has been dumped by his most steadfast corporate defender in the shape of Nike Corporation and forced to step down from the charity he founded.
The American sportswear giant had stood by the 41-year-old cyclist until as recently as August despite the growing case against him.
But yesterday it summarily terminated its sponsorship deal with Armstrong and accused him of having misled it for more than a decade.
Nike's move, which it said it was making in the face of "seemingly insurmountable evidence", coincided with an announcement by Armstrong that he had ceased to act as chairman of the Livestrong Foundation, the charity he set up to help cancer survivors after his remarkable recovery from the disease. It has raised $500m (?380m) over the past 15 years.
Brewing giant Anheuser-Busch followed Nike's lead, saying: "We have decided not to renew our relationship with Lance Armstrong when our current contract expires at the end of 2012."
Soon after, other sponsors also cut ties with him. Among them were Trek bicycles and Honey Stinger, a maker of foods and gels for athletes.
Radioshack, the American technology retailer, also said it had ended its relationship with Armstrong, announcing that it had "no current obligations" to him.
The Texan athlete, who continues to deny any involvement in doping despite the publication of a forensic report by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) which described him as the mastermind of a highly sophisticated drugs ring, said he was stepping down to avoid damaging the foundation.
Armstrong, who will remain on the charity's board, said: "This organisation, its mission and its supporters are incredibly dear to my heart. Today therefore, to spare the foundation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding my cycling career, I will conclude my chairmanship."
The resignation was not the only event that cost the cyclist dear yesterday. Nike, which said it would continue to support Livestrong, declined to comment on the value of its deal but sponsorship experts said it was likely the Usada report would cost Armstrong over ?7m a year in lost endorsements.
In 2005, the last year that the cyclist's earnings were made public, he was earning $17m (?13m) a year from sponsors.
In a statement, Nike said: "Due to the seemingly insurmountable evidence that Lance Armstrong participated in doping and misled Nike for more than a decade, it is with great sadness that we have terminated our contract with him. Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs in any manner."
If the findings of Usada are accepted by cycling's world governing body, Armstrong could be exposed to a flood of lawsuits seeking to reclaim money received while he was at the pinnacle of his career and lauded as one of the world's most remarkable athletes.
The 'Sunday Times' confirmed that it was considering taking legal action alleging fraud against Armstrong over an out-of-court settlement, reportedly worth £600,000 (?738,000), reached with the cyclist in a 2006 libel claim about a story that accused him of taking drugs.
A spokeswoman for the paper said it was "considering taking action to recover money spent on a libel case Armstrong brought and to pursue him for fraud".
Scott Becher, managing director of Z Sports & Entertainment, a division of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Zimmer- man Advertising, said: "He'll be labelled a cheater unless he can prove it otherwise, and that's not a very marketing-friendly label.
"Those that were fans of Lance can easily overlook the cheating and still find him to be inspirational, but there is a difference between someone inspiring you and someone being a role model."
Armstrong was banned for life from competitive cycling and all other Olympic-related sports and stripped of his Tour de France titles on August 23 after opting not to fight Usada's allegations.
"The evidence demonstrates that the 'Code of Silence' of performance-enhancing drug use in the sport of cycling has been shattered, but there is more to do," Travis Tygart, chief executive officer of Usada, said in a statement that preceded the report.
"Livestrong has institutionalised itself so that it will be protected from Mr Armstrong's problems," said Leslie Lenkowsky a clinical professor in philanthropic affairs at Indiana University said in a telephone interview.
"The fact that he resigned -- or perhaps he was allowed to resign -- reflects the confidence the organisation has in its ability to continue on without him."
Nike is scheduled to co-sponsor events celebrating the 15th anniversary of Livestrong in the coming weeks, according to a report in 'Outside' magazine.
It said that the company signed a five-year contract in 2010 to pay the Lance Armstrong Foundation at least $7.5m (?5.7m) annually from profits generated by Livestrong merchandise. Armstrong made $21m in 2010, making him the 50th highest-paid athlete in the world and the wealthiest cyclist, according to the annual 'Forbes' magazine list.
(©Independent News Service)