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Lance Armstrong Could Not Win in Oprah Winfrey Interview

January 20, 2013


Nothing Lance Armstrong did in the interview with Oprah Winfrey would have sufficed. Had he been too contrite, he’d have been seen as fake. Had he been too defiant or realistic, he’d have been see as arrogant. Armstrong sought “the sweet spot” – in the middle – to convey both contrition and defiance. Contrition mostly when it came to those he bullied and betrayed, especially family. Defiance mostly about the drug use and future plans to compete.

The contrition was obvious. Family and friends that have been hurt, the reflex is always emotion in these physical displays of catharsis.

Also obvious was the drugs would be seen more as “performance equalising” than enhancing – to make it a level playing field. As Armstrong said, “I didn’t invent the culture; I didn’t try to stop it either”. He felt that they were all on drugs back then,  there was no other way to win and that he wasn’t doing anything wrong.  With the blood transfusions and testosterone, it was “almost justified because of my history [losing a testicle to cancer]”, so he had to be “short”.

More than regretting the drugs, he regretted the comeback in 2009. When Floyd Landis (Armstrong’s former teammate and Tour winner the year after Armstrong retired) wanted to return after his suspension, and Armstrong’s team didn’t want him, that saw Landis publicly confess. Without Armstrong’s return to the sport, Landis would have had no avenue himself, as no other teams were likely to hire Landis. Armstrong’s new team was Landis’ only hope. While Armstrong never had the clout like he did on his old US Postal and Discovery teams during his TDF reign, Landis still saw the snub almost as a personal betrayal that Armstrong could not (or was reluctant to) wield his power to get Landis a contract.

Armstrong also bemoaned the “death sentence” (a life ban from competition) he has for his drug use, saying he deserves  a chance to return to competition, as other riders can. He has a point here in that those riders that did confess and name names to USADA, that was only as part of a bargain to get incredibly short bans, or have existing bans drastically reduced, to just six months. Armstrong’s perception of persecution is valid, that USADA were willing to give many drug cheats almost no penalty simply to get Armstrong. This would never happen in criminal law. Ten murderers would not escape full sentence just by incriminating one other murderer, regardless of that murderer’s name. Remember, all these riders systematically doped through the years as Armstrong did. Identical crimes; only one rider was the target.

Oprah Winfrey was accused by many in the media of not being tough on Armstrong, especially to name names. Armstrong said right at the start of the interview that he would not incriminate anyone. Any details were fine to ask, except names of people and their actions. No doubt Armstrong has held these names to use to potentially use to bargain with USADA to have his life ban commuted.

The most critical question that Winfrey did not ask, and would that would have unequivocally proved Armstrong’s regret and willingness to atone was about the twitter picture. Just after the USADA report was released, Armstrong tweeted a photo of himself lying on his couch in front of his seven TDF yellow jerseys, with the text “Back in Austin just layin’ about…”. All that Winfrey asked was Armstrong’s mentality for this (“defiance”, duh), rather than, “Will you return the jerseys?”. While Armstrong keeps those jerseys, no doubt he still regards himself the winner of the those seven Tours de France.

How’d Armstrong have answered a question to return the yellow jerseys? That really is the million dollar question. You’d think he’d say Yes given the environment and willingness to display guilt. More likely, this would have been a rehearsed answer, and he’d say No, that he still wants them as memories of his cycling years, handing them back wouldn’t change anything, and that in his mind he knows he’s not the winner.

Of Armstrong’s demeanor, there was a stark hint of  Bill Clinton and his “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” testimony.  The mannerisms, glazed eyes, ruffling the chin, choice of words and even that mid-southern accent, very reminiscent of the former president during that Monica Lewinsky saga.

What did we glean most from this interview? Mostly that Armstrong still believes he won all those Tours, and that he’s mostly sorry for burning family, friends and teammates along the way. He’s sad about all the lost sponsorship, that’s he had to move aside from his cancer foundation, and that his actions were often driven by feelings of persecution and that he’s being treated too harshly.

Let’s remember, without the drugs, he still might have won one or two Tours, and placed highly in all – just as he did when finishing third in his comeback year of 2009. In 2010, crashes ruined his chances of a high place. He’d have still made millions given just getting back on the bike after beating cancer was such a compelling story. It’s wise to put it all in context like this, rather than he cheated everyone else and should be locked up with the key thrown away.

It’s well regarded that Armstrong’s era of cycling was among the dirtiest. So many top riders, even entire teams, caught, and that’s mostly via circumstantial evidence like drug vials in cars, because for much of that period there were no tests for EPO or any tests done outside competition. It’s reminiscent of cycling in the 50s through 70s where it’s now known even the legends were on copious amounts of stimulants. Their records have been preserved. In 20 or 30 years, once the emotion has worn off, expect Lance Armstrong’s performances to be reinstated, and sitting in the record books too.


From → Cycling Free

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