Is Lance Armstrong’s podcast partnership a violation of his lifetime ban?

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On August 2, organizers of the inaugural Colorado Classic stage race announced that the event is partnering with Lance Armstrong to “bring his fresh and informed cycling perspective to the inaugural event with daily podcasts.”

Armstrong’s Stages podcast, launched before last month’s Tour de France, rose to quick success with more than five million downloads and 80,000 unique Facebook viewers each day, leading to a top-10 iTunes ranking in all categories, peaking in the number-two spot in the sports category.

Next week, Armstrong is poised to cover the Colorado Classic and Velorama Colorado Festival with daily podcasts, covering the women’s and men’s races with co-host JB Hager, as well as nightly musical performances.

“We’re breaking ground with the Stages podcast, and love the idea of joining up with Velorama Colorado festival as they seek to do the same for cycling,” Armstrong said in an event press release. “We’re thrilled to cover the cycling action and to bring the unvarnished perspective our followers expect. And, as big music fans, we’ll be covering the Wilco and Death Cab for Cutie concerts each night in Denver.”

But given Armstrong’s lifetime ban, is this allowed? It all depends on Armstrong’s relationship to the event, it seems.

“We’ve engaged with them in a media partnership, including covering specific expenses,” said Ben Davis, a spokesperson for the Colorado Classic. “We have no input into content or creative control over the final product. This engagement is specifically to reach their U.S. cycling audience of five million listeners and 80,000+ Facebook Live viewers.”

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency issued Armstrong’s lifetime ban in August 2012, stating that a lifetime period of ineligibility “prevents Mr. Armstrong from participating in any activity or competition organized by any signatory to the [World Anti-Doping Agency] Code or any member of any signatory.”

The operative words here are “participating in any activity.”

No, Armstrong is not competing. He’s not a UCI-registered athlete, nor is he a staff member of a UCI professional team.

Anti-doping guidelines typically dictate that ineligibility also applies to administrative activities, such as serving as an official, director, officer, employee, or volunteer of an organisation or signatory.

Armstrong is partnered with a UCI-sanctioned event, which expressed that it will cover his expenses and provide him with access as a media partner in exchange for access to his large audience. That appears to place him in an official capacity, “participating in an activity” that is organized by a signatory to the WADA Code.

If this is a violation of WADA Code, what sort of consequences might there be — and for whom?

For Armstrong, there would be no consequences. He’s already banned from the sport and been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. He is, of course, free to record podcasts on any topic he chooses, just as he did last month from across the Atlantic.

It’s a different story for the event, however, which would continue to seek UCI sanctioning for years to come. In terms of consequences, the UCI has leverage — it could strip that sanctioning, relegating the event to the amateur level.

The inaugural Colorado Classic is designated as a 2.HC race, the highest UCI category outside of World Tour races. It is also part of the USA Cycling Pro Road Tour, which showcases the premier domestic road events in the United States. If found in violation of WADA Code, both of those designations would be in jeopardy.

It’s uncertain if the UCI sees Armstrong’s podcast partnership as an “activity” organized by a signatory to the WADA Code — three UCI officials contacted Friday did not return correspondence seeking comment — but a USADA spokesperson told CyclingTips that “an ineligible individual may not have an official role in relation to a sanctioned event such as the Colorado Classic.

“USADA has received complaints about this,” the message continued, “and after reviewing the matter has advised the Colorado Classic on the applicable rules.”

Colorado Classic organizers said they were “seeking additional guidance” before proceeding further.

“We have been informed of rules that could limit broadcast of the Stages podcast from the upcoming Colorado Classic,” said Curtis Hubbard, a spokesperson for the event. “We are seeking additional guidance and will make a decision on how to proceed after further consultation with USADA and producers of the podcast.”

If Armstrong’s relationship with the event is severed, it wouldn’t be the first time that his return to the cycling world was scuttled by his lifetime ban. In 2014, he intended to participate in a gran fondo event hosted by his friend and former teammate, George Hincapie.

That event, however, was sanctioned by USA Cycling as a Category F event, meaning that it qualified as an event organized by a signatory to the WADA Code.

“The Gran Fondo Hincapie constitutes a cycling ‘activity’ that is ‘authorized’ by USA Cycling as those terms are used in the World Anti-Doping Code and in the Anti-Doping provisions of the UCI (International Cycling Union) Cycling Regulations,” the federation told CyclingTips in 2014. “Under these provisions, an athlete’s suspension bars participation in an authorized activity such as this. The UCI has confirmed USA Cycling’s interpretation.”

Armstrong did not return correspondence seeking comment.

Speaking in general terms to Denver’s 9News earlier in the week, he said he was enjoying the success of his Stages podcast.

“For 10, 15 years of my life, success wasn’t my friend, and so even just in three weeks having some level of success for me, I look at that and I like it,” Armstrong said. “I’m pleased with the success, and humbled by the success, but at the same time… you have to manage this right and navigate it right. Maybe it’s too personal, but that’s stuff I think about because the successful person we all saw and many supported a long time ago can never come back.”

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