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Banding Together

People have said some very dumb things, such as "Hey, let's ask Coach Knight to go huntin'!" and "You're AOL. We're Time Warner. Let's merge!" and "Yankees World Series tickets go on sale Monday!"

But one of the dumbest things anybody ever said was at a high school cross-country meet last month in Virginia Beach. As runners finished the boys' and girls' races, an official disqualified about two dozen of them. The reason? "No jewelry allowed," the official told their coaches.

Ten were wearing yellow Lance Armstrong livestrong bracelets in support of the fight against cancer, including several of the boys and most of the girls on the Ocean Lakes High teams. Their times were disallowed. The girls' squad had to forfeit for lack of eligible finishers. And then the phones started doing the Watusi. "Turns out these wristbands are a very powerful force," says Ocean Lakes coach Mike Nestor.

You can't even imagine.

The Lance Armstrong Foundation recently sold its 20 millionth bracelet--at $1 each, with almost all of that money going to help cancer survivors and those coping with the disease. They're selling 150,000 a day. Not bad considering that when Nike came up with the idea, "we figured we'd be lucky to sell half a million," says Michelle Milford, the foundation's associate director of p.r. "It's been miraculous."

Nike found a vendor to make the bracelets and paid for the first five million--and did not slap its logo on all of them. Now that's miraculous. Nike slaps its logo on the foreheads of employees' children.

From the time they went on sale, on May 17, the simple yellow rubber bracelets have gripped people. One day, in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., a Niketown cashier asked a man if he'd like to buy one. He said no, he'd like to buy two, to honor a son who was going through chemo. But he wanted the cashier to give them to the two young boys in line behind him. When the cashier handed the two bracelets to the boys' mother, she said, "And give me two more for the people behind us."

Then the people behind them bought some for the people behind them. And on and on and on. The people in that store paid it forward the rest of the night, nonstop, buying more than 100 bands, until the store closed. Still think one person can't make a difference?

It's not a trend. It's a brotherhood. In airports I've seen bracelet wearers spot one another, then hold up their arms to flash the yellow band, smile and walk on. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and John Kerry all have them. Brides and grooms have worn them in weddings in front of hundreds of yellow-banded friends.

In Green Bay friends of Packers quarterback Brett Favre just ordered 100 in support of his wife, Deanna, who has breast cancer. Wouldn't it be something if Favre ran onto the field next game and saw 72,569 fans silently holding up their LIVESTRONGs to him?

Some people wear as many as a dozen bands at a time. Some hang charms on them in memory of loved ones they've lost. Armstrong himself, survivor of 14 tumors, is "blown away by this. And I don't think they'll disappear. The fad may fade, but the meaning won't. I'm never taking mine off."

Good thing he's not a high school runner, because the only jewelry allowed under national rules are medals worn as "displays of religious faith" and medical bracelets. "The band is a display of faith," protested Jane Brooks, a Virginia Beach School Board member, "faith in oneself."

Buried by public outrage, a district official reversed the decision against the 10 runners wearing the bracelets because they had not received "adequate prior notice" that the bands were considered jewelry.

So, just to recap, Hicham El Guerrouj, the greatest middle-distance runner in the world, can wear a yellow bracelet as he wins gold in Athens, but a kid running a 10-minute mile can't. And a girl who couldn't pick Christ out of a lineup can wear a trendy fake-ruby-encrusted crucifix, but a girl who wants to honor her hospitalized father can't wear a LIVESTRONG bracelet. Oh, and a kid wearing a Rolex can run--wristwatches are allowed in cross-country--but the kid wearing a rubber band can't.

Of course, these are the same anal-retentive rules freaks who, at that Virginia Beach meet, DQ'd a girl whose shirt had ridden up during her run. The reason? No exposed midriffs allowed.

Oh. My. God.

"This has been a learning situation for the kids," says Nestor. What the kids learned is that there are ways to defy stupid rules. Now they scrawl the names of those they want to honor on their hands before a race, then slip the band back on afterward.

That'll work until cranky officials come up with a new anti-ink-poisoning rule. Personally, I'd like to give them yellow bracelets.

Around their necks.

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Twenty million livestrong bracelets have been sold. "The band is a display of faith," says Jane Brooks, "faith in oneself."