By JIM VERTUNO, Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Lance Armstrong's cancer-fighting charity Livestrong celebrates its 15th anniversary at a time doping charges have made its founder an outcast in his sport and the charity is fighting to ward off damage from the scandal.
Livestrong hosts its anniversary gala Friday night in downtown Austin, two days after Armstrong stepped down as chairman to shield the charity from the fallout of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's massive report detailing performance-enhancing drug use by the seven-time Tour de France winner.
USADA has ordered Armstrong banned from the sport for life and his tour victories erased. Armstrong denies doping.
Armstrong has been planning to speak to the crowd of about 1,700 Livestrong supporters, cancer survivors and friends. He's expected to mention the decision to step down as chairman, but not the USADA report and evidence. Armstrong remains on the board of directors.
Invitations to the event — tickets cost $1,000 and tables were sold for up to $100,000 — listed actors Ben Stiller, Sean Penn and Robin Williams, Maria Shriver and singer Norah Jones as special guests.
Livestrong officials have said they hope to raise $2 million this weekend. Armstrong also is scheduled to participate in a charity bike ride with several thousand cyclists on Sunday.
Charity officials said the anniversary events were planned well before USADA announced in June that it would charge Armstrong with doping violations. The charity has worked hard to separate its mission of fighting cancer and supporting patients from the doping controversy swirling around Armstrong.
"We're proud of our history and we're excited to celebrate. In the last 24 hours, we've heard from so many grass-roots supporters, program partners, corporate partners and a lot of them are doubling down, saying they are going to come back even stronger in 2013," said Doug Ulman, Livestrong president and chief executive.
Armstrong lost many of his personal sponsorship contracts on Wednesday. Nike, Anheuser-Busch and others said they were terminating their contracts or would not renew them because of the doping evidence. But Nike and several other companies said they would continue to support Livestrong.
Armstrong founded the charity in 1997 after recovering from testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. Armstrong won the Tour de France every year from 1999-2005 and his success on the bike helped propel the foundation into one of the most popular and well-known charities in the country. Livestrong has raised about $500 million in the fight against cancer.
In 2004, the foundation introduced the yellow "Livestrong" bracelets, selling more than 80 million and creating a global symbol for cancer awareness and survival.
"It has been a great privilege to help grow it from a dream into an organization that today has served 2.5 million people and helped spur a cultural shift in how the world views cancer survivors," Armstrong said in a statement Wednesday.
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