Will fallen idol confess or go for spin cycle in TV tell-all?

Lance Armstrong
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US cyclist Lance Armstrong will be interviewed on TV by Oprah Winfrey amid speculation that he may confess to doping. Sheena Hastings reports.

WILL he confess all or continue to deny taking drugs? Oprah Winfrey’s interview with the seven times winner of the Tour de France Lance Armstrong is likely to attract one of the chat show queen’s biggest ever audiences, as millions tune in to find out if the former champion and inspiring cancer survivor will tell all.

It’s been announced that the 90-minute interview with Armstrong will address “years of accusations of cheating”. Armstrong, 41, has continued to claim he did not take banned performance-enhancing drugs, despite a damning report by his sport’s governing body which led to a life ban.

Rumours are rife in the US media that he is considering a full public confession as a prelude to a return to sport, competing in marathons and trialthlons. The interview, to be screened in the US on January 17, will be the first given by Armstrong since he was stripped of his wins.

In summer last year he stopped his legal fight against doping charges, but without any admission of guilt. In its 1,000-page report on the allegations three months later Usada said he had been “at the heart of the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme” ever operated in sport.

We can only speculate on why Armstrong is speaking now and what he will say – will he go for 
a full confession and tell us what he has done to rehabilitate 
himself and address the disappointment and loss he has caused to sponsors, colleagues, fans and those who run and benefit from his charitable foundation, or will he plead that he has been the subject of a conspiracy?

Whatever, millions will watch because TV has become the modern day confessional box, secular forum for the purging of sins.

In some senses what he says is almost immaterial – a lifetime taint will surely stick to the man whose physical exploits and ability to survive adversity raised him up not only to global superstardom but also to the status of latter-day saint.

“He is so disgraced anyway, and there are a thousand pages of quite overwhelming evidence against him,” says sports and media lawyer Richard Cramer, of FrontRow Legal in Leeds. “I think the net is closing in on him and there are civil court cases looming...I wonder if the pressure has got to him.

“In terms of the damage that an outright confession could do to Armstrong, certainly he could face bankruptcy, as sponsors queued up to claim his disgrace affected their reputation, too.”

Cramer compares the case to that of another one-time sporting god, Tiger Woods, whose sex addiction caused a scandal a few years ago. “He has come back and done well by ordinary golfers’ standards, but not compared to when he was at the top of his game. He was tainted and certain sponsors gave up on him.” Ironically Woods still attracts the biggest crowd at any tournament and more cameras are trained on him than on any other competitor. But he is no longer Teflon-coated on the golf course.

“He had been a very aloof and private man and since his private life spilled out into public he has not been feared by opponents the way he once was,” says Cramer.

“The basic questions Armstrong will have to address are whether he cheated by taking drugs, if so why he covered it up and why he has continued to deny it for so long. Of course if he intends to use the interview to argue innocence – and he’d be a brave man to do it – he could say the impending legal proceedings as a reason to avoid answering certain questions.

“But he will gain more respect and redemption if he is open and honest than if he dodges away from saying what we all want to hear.”

If Armstrong intends to confess, then taking so long to do it has been a huge mistake, says Adrian Roxan, senior lecturer in public relations at Sheffield Hallam University.

“Whatever he now has to say, most people consider him to be guilty. When major sponsors abandoned him, he didn’t fight it. When the report about him came out he said very little. Whatever he says in the interview, his public image is now toxic.

“Good crisis management practised by companies when there is a product problem is to act quickly, state what the fault is, and set out what is being done to put things right. Companies who do that tend to recover market share quickly...If you delay and deny, then the drip, drip, drip of the rumour mill will do for you.”