It’s hard to tell who will get the most out of now-confessed drug doper Lance Armstrong’s true confessions – the disgraced former Tour de France champion or the one-time champ of daytime TV, Oprah Winfrey. To say that the two seem to be made for each other is like saying bicycles have tires.
Armstrong’s effort to come clean after so many years of denials ultimately took on the shape of the current generation’s dance of redemption. First came the calibrated leak to the New York Times that Armstrong, stripped of his titles and banned from competition, was contemplating a confession. Anticipation built when sources close to man denied any such thing. Up steps Winfrey, she of the struggling cable network, to offer the serial liar a place on her confessional couch. To further hype the story, Oprah appeared on a morning television show before the interview aired to reveal a few breathless details.
One of the best lines on all this comes from Dave Zirin writing in The Nation: “(Armstrong) is attempting to use the forgiving, New Age, healing glow of Oprah to please multiple masters with a mix of candor, charm, and puppy dog sympathy. There is a slight flaw however in this plan, which would challenge the smoothest of operators: that’s the stubborn fact that Lance Armstrong is also a person who makes Rahm Emanuel look like Tickle Me Elmo.”
In one respect, Armstrong and his lawyers are engaged in a brilliant piece of damage and mind control. In the age of Twitter, by the time the interview aired Lance’s confession was like yesterday’s garbage – take it to the curb, we’re done with it.
This is, of course, what the cycling cheater had in mind all along. No sense confronting the people Armstrong has defamed or the real reporters he has misled while repeatedly, vehemently and righteously putting himself above his sport and anything approaching a shred of sportsmanship, not to say honor. In the curious world in which we live some cheaters – Pete Rose and Barry Bonds come to mind – are consigned to the dust bin where failed heroes go to sulk. Others, if they have the moxie, are given a second or third act. Lance Armstrong used his Oprah moment in just as cold and calculating a manner as when he engaged in one of the greatest and longest sports cheating scandals of all time.
With his confession now old news, Armstrong can turn state’s evidence and in the blinding white light of rehabilitation cast himself not as the guy who forever tainted an entire sport, but as the guy who now comes to clean it up. Armstrong, always looking out for the athlete who once seemed the best the world could produce, will likely call out other offenders, settle old scores and hope to save not just his skin but his fortune estimated by some at $100 million.
Is there a larger lesson in this new growth industry of the calculating confession? The cynic would say that the world will always have its Lance Armstrongs, unless and until the folks who are charged with governing our sports – and society’s other valuable institutions – are more concerned about rules and right than celebrating super human feats. And isn’t it all too clear now that we should have seen the super human feats as they were performed as just a little too perfect.
When Bonds and Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were sending baseballs flying in a way that had never been done before, and therefore seemed unreal, when Roger Clemens continued to throw his fastball well past the age when most pitchers can’t lift their arm higher than their shoulder and, yes, when Lance Armstrong kept winning and winning the hill climb in the Pyrenees, we sports fans willingly suspended our disbelief. It was really too good to be true.
We should have known they were juiced. The signs were everywhere. The commissioners and sports regulators should have known it, too, and very likely did. We all came to like the notion that something that just didn’t seem right was somehow alright.
Armstrong spent years calculating his way into the need to sit in Oprah’s confessional. And since Americans love a redemption story, even if it’s a phony one, he may indeed now have his second act in sport.
A fairer outcome for Armstrong, which had he done himself might have made his badly delayed confession go down easier, would be to never compete again and instead spend his days trying to regain something more important than another title – a little respect, a little honor.
Marc Johnson is a partner at the Boise-based Gallatin Public Affairs. He led the firm’s Boise office for 18 years and served as company president for five years. Prior to joining Gallatin, he served as press secretary and chief of staff to Cecil D. Andrus, Idaho’s only four-term governor. Marc blogs at www.manythingsconsidered.com.