An Irishman's Diary
It’s fitting that Lance Armstrong’s Oprah interview should happen in the same week as Rory McIlroy’s Nike coronation, because as well as being about money, both events have a quasi-religious aspect.
The original Nike was a winged goddess of ancient Greece. Personifying victory, she flew around battlefields, identifying winners, and conferring them with honours. Which, broadly speaking, is what the modern, corporate Nike does: albeit that it flies the winners to places like Abu Dhabi for the conferral ceremony.
Oprah Winfrey deals with winners too. But sinners are her speciality. If you’ve fallen from grace with Nike, or the other gods of the sponsorship pantheon, Oprah offers a possible path to redemption.
First you must confess your iniquity, preferably in a way that combines sincerity with entertainment value. Then, between the tears Oprah extracts from you and – if you’re lucky – the tears she herself sheds, your sins can be washed away and you can be born again.
It’s funny how indelible the name Oprah now seems, because it was apparently only an accident of childhood. She was supposed be to christened Orpah, after a minor biblical character. But the misspelling stuck so that – somewhat prophetically in the case of Lance Armstrong and others – her name came to include the letters “PR”, in that order.
Another telling detail of her early life – an extremely impoverished life, in Mississippi – is the hessian overalls, made from potato sacks, she once had to wear.
It led to a cruel nickname, “sack-girl”. Yet this also seems to have hinted at her future vocation. Having turned confessional interviewing into a very lucrative art, she now helps fit many of her guests with the sack-cloths required for public penance. How well Lance Armstrong can wear his sack after so many years in Lycra remains to be seen. But if Oprah can’t save him, nobody can.
In the meantime, the juxtaposition of Armstrong’s and McIlroy’s contrasting fortunes could not be more dramatic. Their paths may even have crossed this week in the middle east. Who knows? Flying home from Abu Dhabi with his new Nike wings, McIlroy may well have traversed the spot in the eastern Mediterranean where, somewhere far below him, Armstrong was taking the road to Damascus.
Pursuit of truth
It’s more than 20 years now since I read Paul Kimmage’s memoir of his bike career, A Rough Ride. But it remains a memorably grim portrayal of the life of a domestique, one of those unsung workers who comprise most of a professional cycling team.
Except after the occasional stage victory, or a win in one of the lesser tour events, domestiques are rarely recognised by the goddess Nike. Their role is merely to support winners, leading them out in sprints or chasing down rival breakaways, before slipping back into the main field – the peleton – with the rest of the also- rans.
Sometimes, not even that comfort is available. When the Tour de France hits the Alps or Pyrenees, the expendable domestique often fights a lone battle to avoid the dreaded “broom wagon”, the vehicle that follows the race, sweeping up those who cannot finish within the permitted maximum time.
During his long and dogged pursuit of the truth about Armstrong, Kimmage has been open to the accusation of bitterness about his own biking career. It was a stick with which critics could beat him and many Armstrong supporters happily obliged.
But now that he has been finally vindicated, the contrast between Kimmage’s cycling career and its aftermath is complete. As a journalist, he long ago broke with the peleton of domestiques, the workaday hacks who remained content to cover the sport as fans, and never risked a cold stare from Armstrong, or a hit-me-with-this-child-in-my-arms act like the one he performed at a press conference in California in 2009.
“You’re not worth the chair you’re sitting on”, he told Kimmage then. And even with the hardened undercarriage of a cyclist, Kimmage must have squirmed a little in his seat, surrounded as he was by people who were less inclined to ask hard questions.
There have been other heroes of the Tour de Lance, including David Walsh, who deserves the King of the Mountains title at least. But more than 20 years after he quit cycling, the yellow jersey belongs belatedly to Kimmage. He has the ascents of Alpe d’Huez and the Col d’Aubisque safely behind him. All that remains now is the last stage into Paris, when there may be other issues to settle, but the Maillot Jaune is, by tradition, untouchable.