His responses were measured (to the point of being curt), and he came off as being impassive rather than contrite. His body language spoke volumes, his face an immobile mask for most of the interview. Claiming to have been caught up in the endemic doping culture of pro cycling, Armstrong said he was simply carried along on the tide with so many others. He concluded matter-of-factly, it was just “part of the job.”
Remarkably, when his inquisitor asked whether his dope-fueled TdF wins felt wrong, the defrocked champion looked her in the eye and with a straight face replied, “No. [pause] Scary.” Oprah tried again, “It did not even feel wrong?” Lance (stony faced), “No. [pause] Even scarier.” Oprah pressed on: “Did you feel bad about it?” Again, that unnerving vacuous stare, “No. [pause] The scariest.” That’s three swings and three misses, in case you’re keeping score. No remorse. One can’t help but feel that this man is a sociopath.
“Did you feel in any way that you were cheating?” And as if it explained everything, Lance offered this convoluted defense: “At the time, no. I kept hearing … I’m a cheater. I went in and just looked up the definition of ‘cheat’ [he had to look it up? Now that’s scary!], and the definition … is ‘to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don’t have.’ I didn’t view it that way; I viewed it as a level playing field.” The man is in denial. For the record, Merriam-Webster defines the intransitive verb ‘to cheat’ as, 1a: to practice fraud or trickery; 1b: to violate rules dishonestly. Parse it however you like, Lance, you were cheating. This is hardly the tack you’d expect someone to take when he’s seeking redemption and a second chance.
Responding to U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart’s indictment that the Armstrong-led doping regime was “the most sophisticated, professional, and successful doping program sport has ever seen,” Lance riposted flippantly, “to say that [U.S. Postal’s] program was bigger than the East German doping program in the ’70s and ’80s? That’s not true.” Well, I suppose that’s some consolation.
Armstrong opined that it is not humanly possible for anyone—let alone a cancer survivor—to win seven Tours in a row without having made a Faustian bargain, so he must surely have known he’d get busted sooner or later. But again the dispassionate testimony: “You overcome the disease, you win the Tour de France seven times. You have a happy marriage, you have children. I mean, it’s just this mythic, perfect story, and it wasn’t true.” He seemed utterly amazed that his house of cards came tumbling down. Armstrong admitted to being a ruthless, arrogant bully, and described himself as “a guy who expected to get whatever he wanted and to control every outcome.”
With his chronic history as a serial liar, it’s difficult to determine how much of this performance was authentic and how much was pure bravado; perhaps Armstrong still believes he’s invincible, in control. One thing’s certain: he knew exactly what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. By his own admission, Lance has an ingrained habit of carefully sculpting the Lance Armstrong Story, and there is no doubt that he had also been thoroughly coached by an extensive team of handlers, lawyers, and a “crisis manager”—a dozen of whom accompanied him to the interview. Oprah got it. In the days between the taping and airing of the show, she tweeted simply, “He came READY!”
In fact, not unlike Michael Jackson, a property as valuable as Lance Armstrong would have been coddled and protected by managers, handlers, PR flacks, and groupies throughout his life. The man lived in a carefully constructed fantasy world; his grasp on reality must have been tenuous. He ultimately came to believe his own hype, and as anyone in the entertainment industry will tell you, that is usually a terminal affliction.
When all is said and done, Lance Armstrong isn’t smart enough to be an arch-criminal. He’s a professional athlete, a man who spends most of his waking hours training intensely on the bike or the trainer or in the gym. Perhaps his legendary business acumen is overblown—Warren Buffett or Bill Gates he is not. He may well have been conditioned over time to rely on the guidance of his handlers, constantly reinforced by the adulation of his entourage and admirers (and his burgeoning bank account).
If such is the case, he may be forgiven some of his indiscretions—he was just doing what so many people had encouraged him to do ever since he was an ambitious 16-year-old triathlete competing at the national level. Expectations were always sky-high, and Lance never failed to deliver. The pressure of being in that position must be enormous. We were all more than willing to be awed by his seemingly superhuman feats (I know I was), and we were touched and motivated by his comeback from cancer, and the good works done by the Livestrong Foundation. Now we’re taking turns kicking him while he’s down. Americans adore their celebrities, but they’re a fickle lot.
Though he never directly addressed the question (which was asked repeatedly) of “why now?” Lance turned the query on its head and shot back, “If you’re asking me, do I want to compete again, the answer is ‘hell yes!’ I’m a competitor.” Sounding overly dramatic, he noted how many of his racing cohort—the riders whose sworn testimony about their own drug use led to Armstrong’s downfall—only received six-month suspensions, while he has been given a “life sentence” (his phrase). The Lance doesn’t think that’s fair. Hindsight is 20/20, but now he realizes he should have taken the same deal and cooperated with USADA. Instead, he stood his ground and turned up the volume on his belligerent denials, blinded by his monumental ego. It is more than likely that the people closest to him egged him on as well.
The real answer to “why now?” is painfully obvious: he didn’t confess to clear his conscience, Lance set up the interview with Oprah because the walls (and the authorities) were closing in on him, and he was out of options. It was a calculated move on his part; he wasn’t so much stepping up as he was bailing out. It reminds me of a scene (several, in fact) in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in which the pair of outlaws can’t seem to shake the posse that’s doggin’ their trail. A chagrinned Cassidy exclaims incredulously, “Who are those guys?”
Rather than spilling his guts to the appropriate authorities under oath and letting the chips fall where they may, Armstrong took the celebrity’s route and sought absolution from the High Priestess of Media. Lance’s “confession” was more about damage control than repairing all the damage he himself wrought, and it would appear that he had best not take off the hair shirt just yet—his penance has only just begun.
So I was wrong in postulating that Lance wouldn’t confess to doping, but I was right in likening his performance to the opening of Al Capone’s secret vault. Both were empty and disappointing.
Still, this was just the first stage in the Tour de Lance; many challenges lay ahead. In addition to his legal woes, Armstrong has forsaken the public trust and pundits are lining up to crucify him. In all fairness, it’s very difficult to judge without having walked a mile in his shoes. And it is with this thought in mind that I encourage you to read Diana Nyad’s op-ed on the interview. It’s the most balanced and thoughtful offering I’ve seen to date, and this from a person who understands the world of the professional athlete—and the sting of defeat—better than most.
Can Lance Armstrong pull off yet another comeback? It’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Pete Rose, one of the few people on the planet who actually has a good grasp of Lance’s predicament, offered his consolation, adding, “I waited too long. … I hope it’s not too late for him.”
Oh, and did I mention the movie deal? Hollywood loves a story of redemption—or a fallen angel…
Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.