I confess. I was one of those people who was really looking forward to Lance Armstrong’s two-part interview with Oprah over the last couple of days.
Some say why waste your time with that loser, but personally, I have been fascinated with the whole saga and wanted to see him squirm a little and be taken out of his comfort zone. I wanted to see how much of it was genuine and how much of it was staged. Was he sorry for what he had done or was he only sorry that he was caught? Would he try and squeeze out a tear? Frankly, I just wanted to see the best of the best (at lying, that is) try and explain himself out of an unexplainable situation.
On the whole, I thought the interview went relatively well. As expected, the first part was more explosive and the second was more emotional. We got some answers to questions we already knew (still good to hear them come out of the lion’s mouth), and we didn’t get some of the answers we wanted.
In a nutshell:
- Armstrong confessed to cheating for all seven of his Tour De France titles, including using EPO, testosterone, cortisone, blood doping, you name it — but intentionally shied away from specific examples of how he did it;
- He said he was sorry (duh), was reaching out to people he hurt and will try and make up for it for the rest of his life — but didn’t think he deserved a lifetime ban (which he labelled a “death sentence” when others before him only got six months;
- He denied being the ringleader of the doping scheme and/or intentionally pressuring others on his team to dope — said he did not create the culture of doping but didn’t stop it either;
- He denied doping after returning to the sport in 2008, which runs contrary to blood test findings by the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency);
- He denied donations to the dodgy UCI (International Cycling Union) were to cover up positive drug tests;
- He contributed his bullying and bad behaviour towards others as his desire to “control everything”;
- He didn’t shed an actual running tear, but his eyes watered up when discussing how he told his son to stop defending him — even if you think everything else is an act, you can at least assume that the emotion here was legit;
- He preferred to focus on himself and not name names (such as people in the UCI), probably for legal reasons, though Oprah did not exactly push him either.
It was a riveting yet frustrating interview for many reasons, none more so than the fact that you just don’t really know what is true and what is not when everything that had come out of Armstrong’s mouth up to that point had been a massive lie. It’s hard not to be cynical when he said he would not hold back and yet did precisely that when he didn’t want to answer some of Oprah’s questions (including whether Betsy Andreu’s claim that he admitted to doctors he had used PEDs was true).
On the surface, Armstrong made stepping up to the plate for the interview seem like he had balls (well, more correctly, ball). His supporters, and there are still many, have undoubtedly lapped it up. But was it enough to at least put a dent in all the negativity towards him? I don’t think it was. One look at the headlines today and you’ll see that almost all of them are cynical and are tearing the interview down as a calculated and carefully planned strategy to clean up his image for a potential new start somewhere down the road.
For starters, reports indicate that Armstrong’s entire “team” — agents, lawyers, publicists, PR experts, image consultants and crisis managers — was there for the interview to ensure that everything went according to the script they had prepared. They would have come up with every possible question that Oprah might have asked and prepared answer guidelines. You could tell roughly where the boundaries were whenever he tried to avoid answering the question by changing the topic, glazing over it with generalities or simply “lay down” and refuse to answer.
It was obvious to anyone watching that Armstrong was walking a tightrope throughout the interview, and that his uneasiness was probably due to that as much as any feelings of embarrassment or disgrace. There was of course the legal ramifications of his responses (financial and criminal, including for perjury), and I’m sure he knew where the line was for that, but there was also the difficult goal of appearing sympathetic to audiences without making it seem like he was grasping for excuses.
The attempts were subtle but consistent. For instance, he said his doping scheme was not the worst in history because the East German ones in the 70s and 80s were worse. He said no one could have won seven consecutive Tour de France titles like him without doping and that he didn’t have access to any drugs that others didn’t, suggesting a level playing field and almost as though he was “forced” to cheat.
He tried to distance himself from himself, if that makes sense. The evil Lance, the one that cheated and lied and bullied was not really him, kind of like when murderers plead temporary insanity. He said stuff like it was “scary”, “scarier” and “scariest” when describing his mindset “at the time” because he didn’t even believe it was cheating or that he was doing anything wrong. He said he looked up the definition of “cheating” in the dictionary and that what he was doing didn’t fit the definition of gaining an unfair advantage because everyone else was doing it. He called it the “EPO era.” He even said “look at that arrogant prick” while watching old footage of himself.
It was the same thing when it came to his bullying, although it was obviously more difficult to come across as sympathetic. Apart from apologising and promising to make amends, he tried to make his sociopathic, psychopathic behaviour seem like it was some kind of mental illness, claiming that he needed to “control the narrative” (you could argue that the interview was simply another attempt at that). When referring to all the people he had sued over the years for telling the truth about him, he said “we” have sued so many people that he had lost count, as though it wasn’t really his decision to make in the first place.
Another tactic was to play the sympathy card immediately after that. Armstrong talked about his difficult upbringing, about not knowing who his biological father is, about how he let his supporters and family down, and of course, the battle with cancer. What he’s going through right now is nothing compared to the cancer, he said.
Oprah was also the perfect platform to air his confession. She’s been known to tug at the heart strings and look for silver linings and moral stories (she even asked him what the moral of the story was towards the end). And she was less likely to go after him like some of the more “hard-hitting” journalism programs. For the record, I think she did OK; better in the first half than the second. She certainly could have pressed him more, especially on the irreparable damage he caused to the lives of some of his closest former friends, but I think she could see that she wouldn’t have gotten anywhere with that approach. I know she has been criticised a lot for the way she handled the interview, but I don’t think there was a point in turning the environment hostile when Armstrong’s just not the kind of guy who would crack under pressure. It’s not Oprah’s style, anyway.
In the end, everybody will have their views on the interview, including whether he was genuinely contrite. I’m kind of on the fence with this one. He would really have to be a complete psycho to not feel even a tiny shred of remorse, so my inclination is to lean towards “yes”, but what is pulling me back is the knowledge that he was nowhere near as open and upfront as he could have been. Body language experts have all put in their 2 cents and apparently he was “defensive”, “argumentative”, “competitive” and “rejecting opinion.”
Still, I was impressed that he actually came clean, even if it was in a half-hearted kind of way. I had been convinced that Armstrong would never admit he cheated because he had convinced himself it was true, kind of like this legend.