So about 60 percent of the Lance and Oprah show is done, with the remaining 40 percent to air tomorrow. I won’t get into deep analysis of the interview, as it’s getting a bit late in my neck of the woods. But here are my first impressions.
First, I’m not surprised that Armstrong admitted to doping. He’s been pretty much backed into a corner on that score. His reputation and career are a shambles. To even begin to rebuild his credibility, he had to go at least that far. But if you listen carefully, you’ll notice what he’s not saying, which is in some ways even more important than what he did say.
He’s not saying much about anyone else. Who enabled him? Was there a team policy — written or not — that encouraged or even demanded that riders on the Tour de France squads dope? Armstrong studiously avoided saying much about anyone else. Not much naming of names here.
Which means that so far, he’s following the standard “cyclist caught doping who now comes clean” playbook. Admit to doping. Claim it’s a personal failing and that it was your own decision. Never talk about the enablers, except when you’re forced to (like the questions about Dr. Ferrari tonight).
For as much coming clean as he did, I find it odd that he would admit to doping in 7 Tours de France, but not set the record straight about what happened in the Indiana University hospital room back in 1996/1997 when Betsy and Frankie Andreu overheard a conversation between Armstrong and a couple of unidentified doctors. But on reflection, I suspect the reason he ducked the question was pretty simple. Money. SCA, the insurance company that Armstrong tussled with over the bonus due for the 2004 Tour win (number 6), is looking to get their money back. If Armstrong corroborates Betsy’s recollections, he may lose $12 million or more. So there’s the reason. Or more to the point: twelve million reasons.
As far as these interviews go, Oprah seems prepared. Someone assembled some good research for her. And she has some tough questions for Lance. She’s tough, but she’s not the toughest interviewer. Oprah doesn’t have the wealth of knowledge and experience that a Bonnie D. Ford or Juliet Macur does, or a number of other cycling journalists, for that matter. She follows up at times, but she’s not as dogged in her questioning as a Mike Wallace or an Ed Bradley would be. So in that sense, it could be better.
I suspect for the average viewer — meaning someone who isn’t a cycling fan, and definitely not someone who is knowledgeable about doping in sports — Lance may actually come across as a flawed and sympathetic figure. And those are the people this interview is designed to appeal to. It’s the first stop on the celebrity rascals rehab tour (to recycle a phrase), and Armstrong is clearly trying to move forward and reclaim some of the limelight that he needs.
My impression, when I heard that he had called a number of people to apologize, was that he sounded like he’s in some 12-step program. Like Alcoholics Anonymous. Perhaps this one is Assholes Anonymous, given his reputation as a world-class jerk. And maybe what it takes to get to his level of success was being an that kind of person.
Oprah appears to have left the emotional stuff for tomorrow’s segment. The traditional crying on Oprah’s couch and begging for absolution. (Go ahead, call me a cynic.) This is the stuff that will tug at the heart strings of the average person — or at least, the average person who watches Oprah Winfrey Network. And this interview is a bit of a coup for her. It reminds people of Oprah the TV presenter and what she’s capable of. And it introduces a whole lot of people to OWN. People who wouldn’t have found it on their cable dial under other circumstances. No doubt, it will give her fledgling network a boost. Whether it’s enough to keep it going long-term may be a different story.
While this show may garner sympathy for Lance, one person who doesn’t appear to be buying it is Betsy Andreu. I happened to catch her on Anderson Cooper 360 (I saw some tweets that said she was on), and she still has some righteous indignation. As well she should. Lance did a whole lot to make Betsy and Frankie look bad, once the whole SCA case went down, and that cost Frankie professionally. More than that, it hit home by calling into question who they are as people. (And I can tell you first hand, Frankie is a stand-up guy.)
The way Armstrong talked about his recent phone conversation with Betsy and Frankie, and the way he ducked answering Oprah’s question about the hospital room scene obviously cut deep. By both Lance and Betsy’s telling, it will be a long, long time — if ever — before they will be on good terms.
At the end of AC 360, Betsy had the money quote. She observed that it’s impossible to believe that Lance’s doping didn’t have enablers who are currently going unnamed. Perhaps Oprah will press questions about the team structure and what team management knew during The Interview, Part 2. But I wouldn’t bet on it. I’m guessing it will be more about tugging heart strings than teasing out the truth about the team.
It’s a shame that Lance’s first interview goes to Oprah, in one sense. Armstrong hasn’t had an interrogator who’s really pushed back at him and kept at him to get an answer on questions. She follows up, but after one or two tries goes on to the next question. Betsy was right on AC 360 when she observed that Oprah could have just put it to him, “Yes or no, did you tell the doctors … ?”
So while this interview will confirm that yes, Lance Armstrong was a doper, it doesn’t go deeper and push for the whole story (at least, so far). What role did Thom Weisel play in all of this? Or Bill Stapleton? Or Johan Bruyneel? Or Hein Verbruggen? We know, based on other sources. But Lance is in a unique position to verify what we know, and so far he hasn’t done it. Will he do so in tomorrow’s segment? I don’t think so, but never say never.
This may be the start of Lance’s celebrity rascals rehab tour, but it will be some time before Armstrong achieves redemption. Assuming that is even possible. But it’s a start, and the only way from here is up, as far as all that goes.
To close on a personal note to Betsy (if she reads this), even though Lance ducked the question, it’s pretty apparent that what you and Frankie said you heard at the IU hospital is what passed between Lance and those doctors. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I doubted you.