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Commentary: Forget Oprah. What is Armstrong offering USADA?

  • By Ryan Newill
  • Published Jan. 14, 2013
  • Updated Oct. 30, 2014 at 1:35 PM EST
Armstrong on Oprah is a publicity stunt. A 90-minute talk with USADA could bring real change to cycling. Photo: Mark Gunter | VeloNews.com

In a few hours’ time, Oprah Winfrey will sit down with Lance Armstrong inside his Austin, Texas, compound to conduct what may be a course-altering interview with the banned former world champion. Could a long-anticipated confession finally be at hand, delivered from the upholstered pulpit of Oprah’s notoriously sympathetic couch?

The notion, widely reported since Friday, is not far-fetched. Winfrey’s programs have long been coveted whistle-stops on the public image recovery tours of the entertainment elite. Her program is particularly valuable for Armstrong, as it leapfrogs the cycling and sports media to reach a general audience, one that may still be amenable to accepting Armstrong as a cancer hero rather than a cheat.

But giddiness over the surreal possibility of the studiously intransigent Armstrong following the Oprah star-contrition script — shedding tears of remorse, offering apologies to the injured — quickly washed away the more important sporting story. Just days before the news of the Oprah interview surfaced, The New York Times’ Juliet Macur, citing unnamed sources close to the situation, reported that Armstrong had spoken to U.S. Anti-Doping Agency officials regarding a possible confession.

Both stories, so closely timed, seem to lead to ostensibly the same place — a possible confession of some sort. From a cycling perspective, however, Armstrong’s alleged overtures to USADA, reiterated in an independently sourced USA Today piece by Christine Brennan on Wednesday, are far more significant than his first post-ban attempt to rebuild his legacy.

The public relations motivation — if not the exact content — of the Oprah appearance is fairly clear-cut. But why would Armstrong talk to USADA about a confession? To date, neither side has acknowledged the meetings publicly, much less the logic behind them. USADA chief Travis Tygart refused comment; Armstrong attorney Tim Herman denied the meetings. The theory presented in the Times article is that Armstrong could be approaching USADA with a confession in order to negotiate a reduced ban, enabling him to pursue his triathlon career again. It seems plausible at first blush — confession in exchange for leniency, much as riders like Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie, and Tom Danielson received — but what leverage does Armstrong really have?

USADA effectively won its case against Armstrong when he refused to contest his case in arbitration, instead mounting an unsuccessful jurisdictional challenge through the courts. USADA released its Reasoned Decision on October 10. Its 1,000 pages revealed USADA’s evidence against the cyclist, and recommended he receive a lifetime ban and be stripped him of all of his results since 1998, including his seven Tour de France titles. On October 22, the UCI completed its review of USADA’s file and accepted the ban and vacation of results. Tour de France organizer ASO removed his name from the race’s roll of honor. USADA’s victory was complete. Now, with the battle won, surrender of the defeated seems pointless — unless Armstrong is upping the level of the game.

To have any negotiating room, Armstrong must bring something of value to the table besides his own scalp, which USADA already has. He will need to transcend simple confession and march headlong into the realm of detailed testimony. Just like the riders who solidified USADA’s case against Armstrong, he will need to not only acknowledge his own role, but also supply useful information on parties still involved in the sport.

The amount and quality of information it would presumably require to bring Armstrong’s hard-won ban from a lifetime down to four or even eight years is significant. Given that Armstrong is already 42 years old, a return to competition may not even be the true motivation. Rather, the fallen champion may simply wish to prove that he was not alone, that his actions were merely those of a man trying to be the best in a thoroughly corrupt system. In short, to bring everyone else down with him. Either way, the possibility of Armstrong talking to USADA should leave a number of people fairly uncomfortable as confession rumors continue to simmer.

In the immediate line of fire, there is Armstrong’s former director Johan Bruyneel, whose own arbitration was initially scheduled to start in late 2012 but which currently (and possibly tellingly) does not have a date set. However, implicating Bruyneel, for whom the already disclosed USADA evidence is at least as damning as it is for Armstrong, could hold little value for USADA. Even without Armstrong’s cooperation, if Bruyneel persists in arbitration, USADA will likely be able to draw on the subpoena power of the federal courts to question Armstrong. While the cyclist could still invoke his Fifth Amendment rights and refuse to answer questions, USADA might feel confident enough with the evidence it already holds against the Belgian. Offering up only Bruyneel and/or fellow USADA defendants Pepe Marti and Pedro Celaya is unlikely to buy Armstrong’s eventual return to competition.

Moving beyond Bruyneel, the stakes are much higher, and Armstrong’s unique knowledge could allow USADA to extend its case beyond members and employees of the U.S. Postal Service team and into cycling’s upper management. Velo editor in chief Neal Rogers explored the Armstrong power circles in October and the rider testimonies in USADA’s Reasoned Decision are peppered with accounts of Armstrong’s close relationship with former UCI president Hein Verbruggen, one that several asserted led to a UCI cover-up of a 2001 doping positive at the Tour de Suisse. The governing body has denied the claim, but it also set up an independent investigation into its own activities after the release of the Reasoned Decision.

Suspicion of UCI complicity in Armstrong’s doping is bolstered by the rider’s high-dollar donations to the body, acknowledged by both Armstrong and the UCI, as well as Travis Tygart’s appearance on “60 Minutes” last week. In his interview with Scott Pelley, Tygart said that the head of the Lausanne, Switzerland, anti-doping laboratory, Martial Saugy, admitted to him that he had explained how to beat the EPO test to Armstrong during a meeting requested by the UCI. Saugy denied those claims on Friday. A full and faithful Armstrong testimony might corroborate those accounts of UCI complicity, striking at the heart of the current UCI power structure, of which Verbruggen remains very much a part.

Stateside, a wide-ranging Armstrong confession could shake things up as well. Armstrong’s role as a rider-manager at U.S. Postal, a team owner in the saddle, gave him a bigger window into the team’s doping activities than the other riders who gave statements to USADA. His knowledge extends from the team bus and hotel room activities of riders, doctors and soigneurs all the way up to the financing of the doping program, who in management was aware of it, and what their roles were.

Moving beyond the team itself, the various business and sporting entanglements of the U.S. Postal team ownership, which included Armstrong, Bruyneel, and San Francisco financier Thom Weisel — extend deep into the organizational charts of USA Cycling. Several people who have testified in the USADA case, including Betsy Andreu, have indicated that the organization played a role in facilitating, or at least tolerating, the team’s doping program. Exposure of complicity at the national governing body could necessitate a large-scale overhaul of the organization.

As with his own case, many of the transgressions Armstrong could reveal might be beyond the statute of limitations. However, USADA has proven effective at extending the statute by bundling the actions as part of a long-running doping conspiracy. That same extension could presumably apply to the infractions of others determined to be involved in the same conspiracy. And while USADA might not have much jurisdiction over businessmen and bureaucrats, every additional action in the case holds the possibility of reigniting one of the several federal cases related to the team.

Today, there are few beyond Armstrong, Oprah, and their inner circles that know if a confession is truly in the offing, and what form or forms it might take if it is. But content, venue, and audience matter. A simple, “it’s true and here’s how it happened” during Armstrong’s 90 minutes on Oprah, scheduled to air January 17, could help save Armstrong’s image in the eyes of the American masses. It might help the long-term outlook for Livestrong. It might even help Winfrey’s lagging network out of its ratings hole. But a truthful, detail-laden 90 minutes with USADA could help change cycling forever.

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Ryan Newill

Ryan Newill

Ryan Newill has contributed to Velo and VeloNews.com since 1999. He was drawn into cycling by the mountain bike boom, but a chance meeting with the 1990 Tour de France hooked him on the road for good. For VeloNews, he has covered races in a variety of disciplines and on both sides of the Atlantic, and contributes a wide variety of coverage, analysis, and commentary. See more of his work at www.theservicecourse.com.

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