Lance Armstrong said he cheated by using drugs during his cycling career, ending 13 years of denials and turning the seven-time Tour de France champion and cancer survivor from one of the world’s most revered athletes to as big a fraud as sports has ever seen.
Already stripped of his titles, barred from Olympic sports for life and abandoned by longtime sponsors such as Nike Inc. (NKE:US), Oakley Inc. and Anheuser-Busch InBev NV (ABI), Armstrong publicly acknowledged doping for the first time yesterday in a 2 1/2-hour interview with Oprah Winfrey, the talk-show host said on “CBS This Morning.”
“He did not come clean in the manner that I expected,” Winfrey said today. “It was surprising to me. We were mesmerized and riveted by some of his answers.”
Winfrey didn’t provide details of the interview, which will be televised on the Oprah Winfrey Network over two nights, Jan. 17-18, instead of one 90-minute show as originally planned. Tim Herman, Armstrong’s lawyer, declined to immediately comment on Winfrey’s statements in an e-mail.
Armstrong, a 41-year-old American, may be just starting on efforts at redeeming himself and repairing his ties with Livestrong, the foundation he started to help cancer patients and their families. There also are pending financial hurdles to clear for the athlete whose net worth has been estimated at $100 million, according to the Associated Press.
“We need to question his real motives for doing this,” Ashley McCown, who specializes in crisis communications as president of Boston-based Solomon McCown & Co., said in a telephone interview. “If his motive was to tell the truth, why didn’t he do that a long time ago?”
He has been sued by the Sunday Times of London, trying to regain $1.5 million the newspaper paid to settle a libel case after it printed part of a book that accused Armstrong of doping offenses.
Armstrong faces a whistle-blower lawsuit by former teammate Floyd Landis. Justice Department officials have recommended the U.S. government join the suit, which is aimed at getting sponsorship money back from Armstrong’s former team, CBS News said.
The former cyclist also may be sued by SCA Promotions Inc., which said in October that it would seek almost $12 million. SCA insured bonuses Armstrong received for winning the Tour from 2002 to 2004.
SCA, a Dallas-based company, was sued by Armstrong and U.S. Postal Service team owner Tailwind Sports, partly founded by Silicon Valley banker Thomas Weisel, in 2004 for failing to pay a $5 million bonus owed to the cyclist because of the doping allegations. It settled the suit in 2006, agreeing to pay the $5 million and $2.5 million in interest and legal fees.
The New York Times and CBS News, citing unidentified people, reported that Armstrong plans to testify against cycling officials and others who helped him cheat and cover it up. CBS also reported that Armstrong is in talks to return a portion of the millions of taxpayer dollars received by his former U.S. Postal Service cycling team, without saying where it got that information.
Armstrong will be remembered alongside Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, both of whom were banned from baseball for ties to gambling, as the most notorious cheats in American history, according to Rick Burton, the Falk Professor of Sports Management at Syracuse University.
“He’s on his way looking like he’s going to possibly be one of the biggest frauds of all time,” Burton said in a telephone interview.
“If he wants rehabilitation he’s got to be really sorry and he’s got to take it all on himself,” he said. “If he wants to try and take other people down with him or he’s trying to cut a deal with the cycling federation or triathlon federation in order to get back in sports, I think he’s going to get destroyed.”
Armstrong’s interview with Winfrey, conducted in a hotel room in his hometown of Austin, Texas, follows 13 years of emphatic denials of doping. The cyclist was stripped of his record seven Tour de France titles and banned from competing for life in August by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which said it found proof he engaged in serial cheating through the use, administration and trafficking of performance-enhancing drugs and methods.
USADA, the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based overseer of U.S. drug rules, said in a 202-page report in October detailing Armstrong’s cheating that his career was “fueled start to finish by doping.” The agency, using evidence from 11 former teammates, said Armstrong forced fellow riders to cheat or be fired from his team, transfused blood and used testosterone and erythropoietin.
USADA spokeswoman Annie Skinner didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment about Armstrong’s interview.
Armstrong’s ban from competitive cycling and the loss of his Tour de France titles came after he opted not to fight USADA’s allegations.
Cycling’s governing body, the International Cycling Union, known as UCI, said it “would strongly urge” Armstrong to testify to an independent committee looking at the former rider’s relationship with the UCI leadership. The USADA report questioned how UCI handled issues related to Armstrong.
Armstrong was also banned from competing in top-level triathlons, a sport he returned to after retiring from cycling in 2011. Armstrong competed as a professional triathlete at 18 before focusing on cycling, and last year sought to participate in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.
Following USADA’s report, Armstrong severed ties with Livestrong, which made him perhaps the best-known public figure in the fight against cancer. The largest athlete-founded charity has raised more than $470 million since 1997, according to its website.
Before yesterday’s interview, Armstrong stopped at the Livestrong Foundation and apologized to staff members for letting them down and putting the charity at risk, AP said, citing an unidentified person with knowledge of the session. Armstrong also said he would try to restore the charity’s reputation and urged the group to continue its mission to help cancer patients and their families, AP said.
Armstrong was diagnosed in 1996 with stage three testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain. He returned to the Tour de France as a champion in 1999, winning the first of seven consecutive titles.
“One of the unfortunate victims in all of this has been his foundation, which has done incredibly important work for years,” McCown said. “They didn’t deserve to be dragged into this. Very much collateral damage, so I think it was absolutely the right thing to spend some private time with them and be honest with them.”
Armstrong for years verbally attacked anyone who questioned the validity of his achievements. Those included three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, the first U.S. champion of the race; Emma O’Reilly, a former masseuse with his team who told of doping and cover-up strategies, and Betsy Andreu, the wife of one-time teammate Frankie Andreu, who testified that she heard Armstrong acknowledge doping prior to his cancer diagnosis.
One day before his interview with Winfrey, Armstrong was quoted by AP as saying he was “ready to speak candidly.” McCown, the crisis communications consultant, said the confession, while “one of the most baffling public relations strategies I’ve ever seen,” is the first step in a lengthy healing process.
“The jury should be out for him for a while,” she said. “It’s sort of de rigueur to say your mea culpa and move on. It would have been far more credible had he done it a year or two ago. The motivations seem to be rather self-serving and not just about telling the truth once and for all.”
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