An equivocal act of contrition
Only those with an enduring belief in the tooth fairy could be shocked by Lance Armstrong’s admission that he is a drugs cheat. The fraud perpetrated by the Texan cyclist on a global sporting public and on a more vulnerable audience, battling the vicissitudes of cancer, was graphically exposed by the US anti-doping agency in October.
As a result the real intrigue in Armstrong’s much-hyped Oprah Winfrey encounter was how he would seek to turn the tables for his benefit. His approach was a qualified mea culpa in which he admitted what he could no longer deny: that his success was built on a mix of illicit performance-enhancing drugs and techniques. At the same time, he was studiously economical in providing detail while seeking to minimise his personal transgressions as well as his role in controlling the actions of his team.
Armstrong was addressing a global television audience not intimately familiar with the minutiae of his disgrace. But of greater curiosity is the game being played out beyond public gaze. He is reported to be trying to cut deals with anti-doping and other authorities by trading information. The stakes are high as he confronts a growing wave of civil litigation which could consume his personal fortune as well as the risk that his past lies could yet end in criminal sanction – and jail.
His carefully rehearsed answers to Winfrey may evoke a degree of sympathy. Some will contend that as one man in a tarnished sport he deserves a shot at redemption. He carefully pointed viewers in this direction: it was not possible to win the Tour de France in his “generation” without drugs; others had access to the same; he didn’t “invent the culture”. Conveniently there were factors beyond his control in his flawed desire to win at all costs: his battle with “the disease” (cancer), his upbringing (a mother and son who felt their backs were to the wall), fame, the media, fans and pressure to maintain the Armstrong myth.
But those tempted to forgive or forget should think carefully. Armstrong was indeed only one actor in a squalid pantomime that was under way before he took the stage. But he willingly became the leading man, bringing cheating within his sport to a new level. He manipulated his way to the top until brand Lance became a global phenomenon, surpassing that of cycling itself. He amassed huge riches, influence and power which he used ruthlessly to destroy those who opposed him. His tactics ranged from bullying, character assassination and litigation to pure brass neck and lies. It was the perfect storm: a man with no scruples in a sport that tended towards the unscrupulous.
When he entered Winfrey’s public confessional, the cheat who played for so long with a crooked deck had few cards left. But make no mistake: he continues to play to win.