Thursday, the first part of Lance Armstrong’s confessional with Oprah Winfrey aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network. I didn’t want to delve too deeply into Armstrong’s performance, in part because of what remained. Another hour of the Lance and Oprah show. Perhaps some of the things I felt were missing in the first episode would appear in the second. Funny thing. Most of it was missing from the second, too.
One thing that struck me during the first episode was that Armstrong didn’t seem to show a lot of remorse for his actions. For the most part, that carried over to the second installment Friday night. He teared up a bit when talking about his kids and how he told them that their father was all the bad things they had heard. That must have been hard to do, to sit his children down and say, “Kids, all of that stuff you head about me was true.” And the welling of tears at that moment was about as much genuine emotion as we got in the whole interview. Still, I couldn’t tell if Lance truly understands and accepts the harm he did to others, and whether he feels contrite about it at all.
So, perhaps the best thing would be to consult a couple of people who know Armstrong well. First up, Tyler Hamilton, who told NBC’s “The Today Show” on Friday morning:
“You can tell, it’s real. He’s very emotional and he’s definitely sorry. I don’t know. I think it’s going to be a hard next few weeks for him, next few months, years,” he said. “He did the right thing, finally. And it’s never too late to tell the truth.”
On the other hand, Betsy Andreu pretty much calls BS on Lance’s contrition. After the first part of the interview aired, she said this on Anderson Cooper 360:
“You owed it to me Lance, and you dropped the ball. After what you’ve done to me, what you’ve done to my family, and you couldn’t own up to it. And now we’re supposed to believe you? You have one chance at the truth. This is it,” said Andreu.
Two different people, two different takes. Friday night, after round two was shown, Betsy told Anderson Cooper that she feels sad about the whole situation. But I didn’t hear her full comments from the entire show (because I didn’t watch the whole show), so there may be much more to how she was seeing things 24 hours after the first portion of Lance and Oprah’s chat.
What to make of it all? For me, I guess I’ll go back to what I saw. And that was that while Armstrong admits he owes Frankie and Betsy and Tyler and Floyd and Emma apologies (and let’s add Greg LeMond and David Walsh, too, for good measure), and while he admits he cheated, I can’t tell whether he’s sincere. I’d like to believe he is, because all of those people have felt the wrath of Lance, and they deserved better. He needs to make amends, as best he can, for what they endured.
Lance doesn’t seem to understand, or perhaps be willing to admit, that there was a reason the others who cooperated with USADA got reduced suspensions and he didn’t. Yes, he says if he could go back to the day USADA contacted him, he would do it differently. No lawsuit. No attempts to derail the case. Cooperation. But what he doesn’t say is what he would do if he could go back even earlier, like to before he won all those Tours. Would he choose to ride clean? Or at least not to be one of the key players in an organized doping scheme? Because it was being at the center of the scheme that got him the life ban, not that he doped like the others doped.
In the first interview, he occasionally parsed things in a way to try and make things look less bad. Oprah brought up USADA’s characterization of his team’s doping program as the most sophisticated and professional in sport. Which was an unnecessary bit of hyperbole on USADA’s part when they said it. Sophisticated and professional, sure. But we don’t know just how sophisticated and professional some of the other programs were. So “the most” was just hype.
Armstrong answered by (correctly) pointing out that the East German program of the 70s and 80s was more sophisticated than his. True, the USPS/Discovery teams didn’t have their own anti-doping lab to research how to detect drugs, the way the East Germans did. Research which the East Germans then applied to their athletics programs to ensure that their athletes didn’t fail tests in competition (though a few did, which spurred changes in doping regimens). But the USPS/Discovery program was pretty darned sophisticated and professional. And it benefited, directly or indirectly, from the East Germans’ research.
Following the “we might as well win” philosophy of Johan Bruyneel, the team’s program could well be described as “we might as well hire the best people to help us dope and not get caught.” Of course, none of that came out in the interview, as Lance provided scant details about the who, what, when, where, and how. We do know why, though. To win.
Armstrong talks like a person who’s been in therapy or is currently in therapy. So it was no great surprise to me that he admitted as much when Oprah put the question directly to him. Armstrong appeared humble enough to admit that the process he’s going through will take time. And that it may take some time before reconciliation can happen between himself and those he’s wronged. (Never say never, but don’t hold your breath waiting to hear a story about Lance being invited to the Andreu household for risotto.)
Throughout both broadcasts, the thought that kept running through my mind was, “What does Lance want out of this? What’s his angle?” And I think that one of the most honest answers of the interview came when Oprah asked him if he would like to compete again. “Hell, yes!” Armstrong replied, going on to say that he’s a competitor and that’s what he does. That’s his angle. And perhaps to get back into the public’s good graces, and enjoy more time in the spotlight.
But even if Armstrong works with WADA and USADA and gets a reduced suspension, odds are that he won’t be lining up for any sanctioned athletic event anywhere until just shy of his 49th or 50th birthday. I suppose it’s possible he might assist those two agencies, and lately Lance has been anything but predictable. Looking at how little he said about others, though, I have to think he won’t rat out anyone else. Goodbye athletic competition — other than the unsanctioned variety, which probably doesn’t provide the level of challenge he craves.
So the big question becomes, “What will Lance do until such time as his ban gets lifted?” And a related question, “What if it never happens?” Yes, Armstrong said he realizes the lifetime ban may never be reduced. But comments addressing his future weren’t in abundance. So what will Armstrong do? Unfortunately, I don’t think we heard an answer.
More to the point, I don’t know if Armstrong even has an answer to these questions.
Now that Armstrong has confirmed his past, what effect will it have on cycling? Where will the sport be in one year or five years? Hard to say. If a truth and reconciliation commission ever does get formed, and if everyone who knows anything about doping opens up and talks, perhaps the sport will move into a new minimal-doping era. I’m loath to say dope free, because there will always be at least a few people tempted to use whatever means necessary to win races. Lance Armstrong wasn’t the first to succumb to that siren song and he won’t be the last.
Where will Armstrong be in one year or five years or more? That’s even harder to say. He’s started opening up about the past, and I think that’s a good thing. At the start of the interview on Thursday night, Armstrong said that he’d been telling one big lie over and over and over again. And that it felt good to finally let that go. But I don’t get the impression that he’s fully let go just yet. And I don’t know how long it will be before the full story has been told. Or if the full story will ever be told.
Armstrong has a lot of apologies to make and a lot of fences to mend. Not all the apologies will be accepted. And not all the fences can be mended. Those that can be fixed will take time. Lots of time. But it’s not something that will occupy his days the way bike racing did, or training for triathlons did, or having a cancer foundation did.
So Lance Armstrong finds himself at a curious crossroads. Even if he loses half his reputed $100 million fortune to lawsuits and settlements, he will still have enough to live comfortably for the rest of his life. And his kids will be well taken care of, too. He’ll be able to provide a home for his family, food, clothing, college tuition, all the material comforts. But he’ll have a whole lot of time on his hands, and no job to fill his days.
So we come back to the big question that goes unasked and unanswered — in this interview, at least. The question we all confront at one time or another. “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?” Will Armstrong find a way to make a positive difference, as he did with his cancer charity? Or will he focus on more personal pursuits and stay out of public view (not bloody likely).
For the foreseeable future, Lance Armstrong will be wandering in the wilderness, not entirely in control of where life will lead him. This is a good thing. It will give him the opportunity to reflect on how he got to this point. And maybe that could spur some big changes.
Perhaps the best advice he’s gotten came from his ex-wife Kristin, who told him that the truth will set him free. That it will, if he keeps (starts?) telling the truth. Time will tell if he can stick to that. Maybe he will just vanish from view for a while. But given that it’s Lance Armstrong we’re talking about, I don’t for a minute think that we’ve heard or seen the last of him.