With his brand in tatters, Lance Armstrong’s chance to redeem himself missed the mark.
Published in the Edinburgh Journal 20 Jan 2013.
It’s all a game, the further you venture, the deeper you fall, the harder it is to pull a U-turn and tell the real truth. Armstrong was particularly gifted at this game. He shouted the loudest, he sued the most, threatened and mocked the doubters, ruined lives, dished out bribes and one by one he brought them down. The game has reached a precipice, but either route pursued this game is far from over. With a partial confession on Thursday nights interview with Oprah, disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong kept up the façade and played on. From hero to villain, his reign has come to an end in spectacular fashion.
For all its build up the two-part interview did disappoint. Instead of a heartfelt apology, the audience got what appeared to be a carefully choreographed delivery. He did confess to doping but no names were named, no mention of LeMond, Bruyneel, Kimmage etc. A hesitant apology to David Walsh and Emma O’Reilly. A ‘no comment’ on Betsy Andreu. Some more denials; he swears he was clean for his comeback and a rejection of the claim that he paid UCI to make positive tests go away.
There was a certain lack of conviction to his words. He’s lost everything; sponsors, titles, medals, millions of dollars, and his right to compete in sanctioned races. Now backed into a corner, he relents just a little bit with a limited admission of guilt and an ‘I’m sorry’ delivered via Oprah, who is no longer a journalist but a talk show host, who knows nothing of cycling, and who he knows will turn this into an emotional programme with a moral instead of getting down to the nitty gritty and forcing him to face the hard questions that we, the cycling fans want to know the answers to. You follow a sport your whole life and in one of the biggest moments in it, you’re forced to get up at 2am in the morning on two consecutive nights to watch two episodes of the Oprah Winfrey Show. Armstrong, in yet another marketing stunt tried to appeal to our emotions, forgetting that although he is charismatic and we have always admired him, he has never been a particularly likeable character and this time no amount of PR is going to convince us otherwise.
This is an athlete that even the girly girls – whose only interest in sport lies in commenting on how fit footballers are – have heard of . In hindsight it all seems laughable now, the toughest most brutal race in the world and he won it seven times. An apparently impossible task riding only on bread and water. But people love an inspirational story and this was the cream of the crop. He knew how to play the audience time and time again, and we followed along mutely, tongues lolling from our mouths, drooling over the fairytale. Now, the Armstrong brand is dissipating in his hands. The cancer survivor, that went on to dominate the world of cycling. When all along, behind closed hotel doors, stood Ferrari, painted as a creepy medieval doctor, performing blood transfusions and dishing out white lunch bags full of goodies. “That is a guy who felt invincible, he was told he was invincible. He truly believed he was invincible,” says Armstrong of himself during the interview.
Armstrong was arrogance personified – the Nike commercial jeering the ones who claimed he was on drugs, the tweet of him laying on his couch surrounded by his seven yellow jerseys. “Fame magnifies whoever you are” says Oprah during the interview, and Armstrong was not a nice guy, he was a bully. A guy who loved control, and is not used to defeat. You could see it in his eyes and as he fiddled with his hands, he was at a loss without his precious control. If he cooperated with USADA back in May he might only have received a six-month suspension according to ESPN reporter T.J. Quinn. But to him it never felt like cheating, just a ‘level playing field.’ He says only now is he beginning to see outside his bubble; “I am beginning to understand that. I see the anger in people. They have every right to feel betrayed.”
He was the man who epitomised the American Dream and now faces the nightmare. He yearns to compete again and thinks he deserves to be allowed. He faces the death penalty, a lifetime ban on competing. Armstrong needs to learn it is not all about winning and he needs to step away from all sport for a while to allow it to heal. If he can’t do that for cycling than I fear he is not really sorry and his words are once again, empty.