Cycling legend Armstrong may be jailed

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Lance Armstrong, seven-times winner of the Tour de France and one of the world's most successful and admired sportsmen, will go on trial in Italy on 7 March for criminal defamation, a charge that carries a maximum six-year prison sentence.

The court hearing in the southern town of Latina, which was scheduled last week, has dealt a blow to the image of the sporting superstar and revived unhappy memories of doping controversies that Mr Armstrong never succeeded in shrugging off, despite his retirement from professional cycling last summer.

Mr Armstrong is being sued by an Italian cyclist, Filippo Simeoni, who was the key witness in the doping trial of an Italian doctor, Michele Ferrari, who had worked with the Texan racer.

The case hinges on an interview Mr Armstrong gave to the French newspaper Le Monde two years ago, in which he accused Mr Simeoni of lying. The two men gave conflicting evidence at Dr Ferrari's trial in Bologna and have clashed on the Tour de France.

"I had told the truth and now I look forward to 7 March with confidence," Mr Simeoni said last week. "Sooner or later, things will be clarified and justice will take its course."

Mr Simeoni's evidence was recognised as crucial in the conviction of Dr Ferrari, now appealing against a one-year sentence and a €900 fine for sporting fraud and unauthorised practice as a pharmacist.

The judge who convicted him of prescribing the performance-enhancing drugs EPO and Andriol acknowledged Mr Simeoni's contribution, saying his evidence had been clear and he had been well aware of its implications.

Mr Simeoni's lawyer, Gianni Napoleone, said: "No one thought Lance Armstrong would be ordered to stand trial in Italy. It's the first time someone of his standing has been tried for defamation."

He added: "Armstrong is not obliged to attend the hearing, but I imagine he will want to come and say something in his defence."

Mr Napoleone said Mr Simeoni had been ostracised and insulted by colleagues as a result of the doping controversy and had suffered professionally because of his testimony at Dr Ferrari's trial, adding: "He would be prepared to accept an apology from Armstrong. Our intentions are not vexatious."

For the man who defeated testicular cancer and returned to competition to win the world's most prestigious cycle race for a record seven times, the doping controversy might appear a pinprick. But for the man who collects sports awards like confetti, who has created a foundation to fight cancer, stretches his cycling muscles with George Bush and is preparing to marry the rock singer Sheryl Crow, integrity is hugely important. To his fellow Texans, Mr Armstrong is an "Alamo-level myth" and he does not want to lose the "Boy's Own" shine.

Lance Armstrong himself addressed the issue, which was revived by the French sports newspaper L'Equipe in August, in a television advertisement that he made for Nike in 2000: "Everybody wants to know what I'm on. What am I on? I'm on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?"

He is probably the most tested athlete in the history of sport and has never failed a drugs test.

"It's pure fantasy to suggest that he could be sent to prison," said his lawyer, Enrico Nan. "Italy's prisons would be overflowing if you could be jailed for calling someone a liar."