Lied his whole career and he’s about to do it to Oprah
Lance Armstrong, the biggest drugs cheat in sport, is having a friend over this week. The pair may compare inspiring quotes - both have spawned industries in them - and talk about the spiritual enlightenment that grows in adversity.
There will be a confession - or so says the press release - and there may be tears and a hug. Armstrong may even try telling the truth for the first time in a decade or two.
But let’s not get carried away. Armstrong has had five months since he was outed as a slimebag to practise his best version of honesty, the one that is least likely to lead to lawsuits and most likely to spark the first flickerings of public support.
He’ll have been coached like a politician on the campaign trail. Do say this. Don’t say that. Take some responsibility but don’t take all responsibility. Be a victim - but only of your desire to succeed. Whatever you do, don’t talk details.
Chances are Armstrong will sound half convincing, too. He’s Pinocchio on Pedals. He’s been method acting for almost two decades.
And whether Oprah Winfrey, his new best friend, is the most qualified interviewer to extract facts from him is debatable. Winfrey may be the world’s best empathiser. She’s not, as is needed here, the world’s best interrogator - which is why Armstrong invited her to his house for a televised chat.
He may have seen Winfrey’s 2008 interview with Marion Jones, the Olympic superstar from the Sydney Games.
Jones was fresh from a six-month jail stint for perjury charges stemming from the drug use that had her stripped of five Sydney medals.
She giggled and cried and explained that she didn’t know she had been taking drugs - heck, she thought she was taking flax seed oil pills.
“You know, that’s hard to believe, that’s really hard to believe,” Winfrey ventured, momentarily out of character, before reverting to her sisterly confidant style that allowed Jones to perpetuate a tale that didn’t sound at all feasible.
Where’s Judge Judy when you need her?
Winfrey won’t be forgiven if she allows Armstrong such latitude this week (Friday AEDT). What seems inevitable is that her interview will lack the forensic hardness needed to probe one of the most audacious frauds of modern times.
The match-up, which was never likely to satisfy most viewers, may not present Winfrey with the gushing commentaries to which she is accustomed. It may not help Armstrong much, either.
Open-ended questions that invite rehearsed answers steeped in “regret” won’t set him on the tricky path to recovery.
It normally might: for Tiger Woods, say, and dozens of AFL footballers who err off-field, the public apology is often enough to arouse some sense of forgiveness.
Armstrong’s cheating was more wholesale. It wasn’t a lapse of judgment. It wasn’t a weakness in this or that part of his nature. His cheating was intrinsic to his identity. It was who he is. If he didn’t cheat, he was no one.
Armstrong had a foundation story of cancer survival. He nurtured a folklore built on integrity. He had wristbands and catchphrases and lawyers who mugged anyone who queried the mythology. Armstrong didn’t deny using drugs. He raged and seethed at the slightest suggestion of it. He had no shame.
Armstrong invited people to invest in hope as framed by the cyclist who had nearly died then, through sheer will, had triumphed again and again to win the Tour de France seven times.
He was the best cyclist, it now seems, because he was the best cheater. His wins have been expunged from history as though the races never took place. Throughout the years, and up until now, he himself has acted, disturbingly, as though he has believed the fraud to be the truth. He chased every lawsuit and every performance bonus, as though every cent of his estimated $100 million was his due. The truth, as we now know, is that - as a morality tale - he wasn’t worth a cracker. What could he now say, to Winfrey or anyone else, that could mitigate the devilry of his deception?
The interview, as an event, has been likened to Woods’ apology for cheating on his wife. Sponsors cared, of course, and so did fans groomed to believe that titillation and public interest are interchangeable. Yet Woods’ personal meanderings had no bearing on his sporting integrity. He had not been dishonest on a golf course, and it was because of golf that people admired him in the first place.
Other athletes have cheated, of course. Usually they have been pawns, to varying extents, to coaches or officials.
Armstrong was a ringleader. He has never not lied about drugs until now. He has never shown any regret: speaking now, belatedly, smacks of the sort of reptilian calculation that propelled his cycling career.
Armstrong’s nearest comparisons belong outside of sport. Think of the shock, perhaps, if it emerged that Hillary had used a helicopter to climb Everest in 1953. Or think of the evangelist minister who preaches family values, wife at his side, while hitting on every woman who passes by.
Some Americans have alighted on Bernie Madoff, the Ponzi scheme fraudster, as Armstrong’s closest counterpart.
Madoff is three years into a 150-jail term for defrauding something like $65 billion from clients. For now, Madoff, who has never been interviewed by Winfrey, remains one up on Armstrong - at least he has admitted his massive failings as a human being.
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