Oprah Winfrey interview, the end of the road for Lance Armstrong?

Like all those who are accustomed to winning, the expression ‘preparation is the key to success’ will be only too familiar to Lance Armstrong. In all his years of competing however, never has this been truer than the preparation which has unquestionably been undertaken by his lawyers in advance of his forthcoming interview with Oprah Winfrey, due to be aired on Thursday 17 January. 

It has been widely reported that the seven-time Tour de France winner will finally admit to taking performance-enhancing drugs throughout the course of his illustrious career, despite previously vehemently denying this. Armstrong was famously stripped of all the titles which he had won since August 1998 following a damning report and subsequent lifetime ban from the US Anti-Doping Authority, which was later backed by cycling’s ruling body the Union Cycliste Internationale. Since confirming that he would not be appealing this decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Armstrong has been relatively quiet on this issue, but it now seems that he is hoping to use the interview as an opportunity to come clean and move forward with his life. It will not have escaped the attention of his legal team however, that such an admission has the potential to set in force a set of legal reactions which will far outweigh any possible benefits that will come as a result of having a clean slate.

Oprah has stated that she entered the interview with 121 questions, the majority of which she managed to put to Armstrong. It will be interesting to see if these contained any of the 10 which were placed in an advert in the Chicago Tribune, Oprah’s local paper, by The Sunday Times. The London based paper have announced that they plan to commence proceedings against Armstrong in an attempt to recover more than $1,500,000 following a settlement which was reached in relation to a civil claim for libel in 2006, this concerned an article in the newspaper which re-printed allegations of doping by the cyclist. But this is just the tip of the ice-berg for Armstrong, a fact which has undoubtedly been discussed in great detail by his team of legal advisors. Any admittance of guilt would certainly be used to add weight to the civil claims which have already been issued against the cyclist from those such as South Australia State, who are hoping to recover some of the ‘several millions of dollars’ paid to Armstrong in appearance fees to participate in the 2009, 2010 and 2011 Tour Down Under, and SCA Promotions, a Dallas based insurance company who are claiming $11,000,000 in prize money, which they paid as a result of the cyclist winning the Tour de France.

However, much like the majority of races won by Armstrong there are many more twists and turns ahead.  In the wake of the USADA report and lifetime ban major sponsors such as Nike and Anheuser-Busch confirmed that they would be withdrawing sponsorship and endorsement deals potentially worth millions of dollars. An admittance of guilt would undoubtedly trigger a wave of civil claims from these former sponsors, in an attempt to remedy the damage caused to the reputation of their brands. Considering the fact that Armstrong was at the very height of cycling for a significant amount of time, it is not being dramatic to suggest that the total of these claims may run into tens of millions of dollars. Additionally, former teammate Floyd Landis has already filed a whistle-blower lawsuit alleging fraud against the US Postal Service during the years that the agency sponsored the cyclist’s teams. It is rumoured that the US Department of Justice is also considering whether to join this action, a move that will certainly add a large amount of legal weight behind the already substantial actions against the former champion and those closely linked with him.

Finally, it must not be forgotten that Armstrong has frequently called into question the integrity and honesty of his many accusers over the years. Any admission of guilt would arguably give rise to several defamation claims from these individuals in order to remedy any damage caused to their reputation. There are even rumours that an admission may see claims for fraud made by donors to the Livestrong Foundation, the council charity which Armstrong founded and stepped down as chairman from following the events of last year. Oh, and there is also the minor issue that Armstrong testified under oath in 2005 that he had never used performance-enhancing drugs, however he will be hoping that the fact we are now outside the 5 year limitation period will keep him of the US court system and facing a potential prison sentence of up to 5 years.

In light of the potential ramifications that an admission of guilt would bring it must be questioned what Armstrong hopes to achieve from his interview with Oprah. Many have suggested that he may be hoping to make some headway in attempting to remove the USADA lifetime ban, which must be applied by any sport which follows the World Anti-Doping Agency code, so that he can once again compete in competitive sport, albeit Triathlon and not purely cycling. Others have suggested that he is simply hoping to lift some of the weight from his shoulders, whereas some believe that he still harbours ambitions of running for political office in Texas, and feels that this will not be possible without a very public apology. Although the reasons behind the decision to finally admit to what many have alleged over the years remain to be seen, it will be interesting to see whether he faces an uphill climb ahead, or whether this may be his final crash. One thing that is certain however is that of all those watching the interview on Thursday, there will be many lawyers around the world paying more attention than most.

Alan Darfi

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