Comment and Analysis

Deep Read: The cost-benefit analysis of Armstrong's confession

Matt Seaton

Don't be fooled: the only thing choking up Lance Armstrong is the string of lawsuits he has to settle. But he'll recoup through Oprah's redemption.

Disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. (AFP)

It is now absolutely clear that cyclist Lance Armstrong will make some form of admission in Thursday's interview with Oprah Winfrey to the dope-cheating that the United States Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) report called "the great heist sport has ever seen". The public relations strategy of drip-by-drip leaking has been expertly executed.

First, there was the New York Times' scoop about Armstrong's contacts with Usada to reduce his lifetime ban (disclosure: my sceptical response has proven 100% wrong). Then, we learned about the Oprah appearance, and it became ever harder to imagine what they would have to talk about for 90 minutes if Armstrong continued his career-long practice of stonewalling doping accusations and destroying those who spoke the truth.

On Monday, the day his Oprah show was being recorded, Armstrong met with staff at the cancer charity he founded but recently resigned from, and rendered a tearful, "choked up" apology to his former Livestrong colleagues. And finally, we learn via CBS that Armstrong may even be willing to testify himself against fellow cyclists on doping charges.

In short, this now looks like a carefully choreographed, slow-release PR plan – likely managed by Armstrong's long-time agent Bill Stapleton – to perform a 180-degree turn on all previously held positions: belligerent denial, self-righteous indignation and bullying belittling of accusers. Instead, we have Lance Armstrong the penitent sinner: the weepy, choked-up prodigal son, who is finally coming clean and seeks redemption. As is well-established, an audience with Oprah achieves that almost instantaneously: I can see her right now, reaching out and taking his hand as he shakes with emotion and talks about the pain of living the false life we all made him lead.

And from redemption to rehabilitation. Armstrong will leverage his confession to the maximum to get his lifetime ban reduced, to four years, perhaps less. He'll be back before we know it: a slightly grizzled and more wrinkled version of himself, glad-handing and fist-bumping on the triathlon circuit, getting back to fundraising for the Livestrong Foundation, making faux-humble speeches for fat fees on the after-dinner circuit, mopping up some handy corporate sponsorships, reconnecting with his Washington power-broker contacts, and – older and wiser – maybe even running for office himself, as was once mooted.

Exiled
But this only stacks up because, for the second half of his life, Armstrong needs not to be permanently exiled from American public life: to be a viable celebrity brand is all his future. The costs are significant: he will almost certainly have to settle with SCA Promotions, but they will probably take a lot less than the $11-million that headlines their suit. The Sunday Times wants to recover $500 000 in damages, plus another $1-million in costs; but they'll take less.

But here's the thing: Armstrong's net worth is estimated to exceed $100-million. These sums sting, but they don't really hurt him. And next to his post-rehabilitation earnings potential, they're chump change.

The only remaining obstacle is Floyd Landis' "whistleblower suit" under the False Claims Act. Also called a "qui tam" suit, most such civil legal actions fail – unless the US justice department chooses to join as a co-plaintiff, in which case the chances of success multiply dramatically. Landis' suit alleges that Lance Armstrong, in effect, defrauded US taxpayers who were, via the US Postal Service, the title sponsor of Armstrong's Tour de France-winning cycling teams from 1999 to 2003. That sponsorship was worth, reportedly, about $10-million per year, making $50-million in total.

If Armstrong was choking up and sobbing at his Livestrong Foundation encounter, it was far more likely because he had received word that the senior officials in the justice department had recommended that the federal government join Landis' lawsuit, than for any show of true contrition. It must be a rattling prospect, even for Armstrong, that the US government would be coming after him, along with Landis, for potentially tens of millions of dollars – which, all the pre-publicity tells us to expect, Armstrong will confess he took under false pretences when he won by cheating.

As this latest turn in the Armstrong saga demonstrates, the disgraced cyclist is nothing if not well-advised: the combination of off-the-record briefing (Bill Stapleton?) and official denial (attorney Tim Herman) was text-book stuff. No doubt, they have done their sums, too. So if Armstrong has already opened negotiations with Travis Tygart at Usada to get his ban reduced, then it's likely, as CBS reports, that there have been talks with the justice department about a deal to settle the private suit.

Academic interest
The question of why the US justice department is piggybacking on Landis's suit now, when a US attorney in California inexplicably nixed a prosecution based on the federal grand jury investigation into precisely the same charges of fraud is now mainly of academic interest. In his book, The Secret Ride, Tyler Hamilton hinted strongly that Armstrong's political connections pulled strings. We do know that Armstrong lied repeatedly, even under oath, but thanks to the statute of limitations in one case (the suit against SCA in 2005 lawsuit), and a wayward federal attorney in another, Armstrong has dodged a felony rap.

A criminal conviction, no; but civil damages he can afford. Armstrong will have done his math, and worked out where the percentage lies: it's with confession. The benefits outweigh the costs: he'll earn that rehabilitation, but he will come out ahead.

The irony of this day is that it also saw the retirement of the greatest female cyclist of her generation: former world and Olympic champion Nicole Cooke. In her statement, of great dignity but justified anger, she directly pointed to the damage Armstrong's dope-cheating did to her career, and to the entire women's sport, by killing its sponsorship. Please read it in full; it is a historic document. But this line says everything we need to hear about Armstrong's confession:

"I can't help thinking that the cheats win on the way up and the way down." – Guardian News and Media 2013

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