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Lance Armstrong had an easy ride with Oprah

18 January 2013

Lance Armstrong could yet manage to emerge a hero. ‘What’s the crime?’ is all he needs to ask. ‘Who died?’ On one side, a lot of people interested in the somewhat esoteric topic of who can make a bicycle go fastest were conned. On the other, more than half a billion dollars raised to fight cancer. Which is more important?

‘Oprah, I cheated. I cheated to beat a field full of cheats. You got me. But I used my profile to fund research into finding a cure for the greatest killer of our time. If I wasn’t winning, that wouldn’t have happened. You do the math.’

Why didn’t he just say that?

Again and again, Oprah asked him about the lies, seemingly amazed that anyone would ever cling to an untruth. Armstrong, with a winning forbearance, tried to explain. He even went so far as calling himself an ‘arrogant prick’.

Why didn’t he just give the obvious, and truthful, answer? ‘Oprah, when you start lying you have to keep lying. Everyone knows that. Have you read no Shakespeare? I wove a tangled web.’

He didn’t even point out that anyone – and there millions of them – who believes he is solely responsible for doping in cycling wilfully misses the point. It may be clean, or cleaner, now, but top-level endurance cycling has a history of endemic doping that goes back to the 1950s. They were all at it. They have always all been at it.

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I am not for a moment suggesting that Armstrong is any type of hero. He is a man who has accumulated vast wealth by shamelessly and remorselessly cheating, and for a decade bullied anyone who said otherwise into submission. But last night’s interview – the first instalment of his time in the chair across from Winfrey – was surely a chance for him to plead some sort of perspective.

In that respect, it was a missed opportunity. And as much as it is possible to admire him for doing the interview at all, it was notable that he did not yet seem prepared to come completely clean.

He ducked elaborating on previous sworn testimony in which he denied, on his deathbed, telling a doctor that he had swallowed an illegal pharmacy. And he flatly denied a $100,000 donation to doping police the UCI was a kickback or a bribe.

Admitting either of these allegations was true – perjury or bribery – would lead to prison. The donation, then, was presumably made only to ensure the UCI could go on fighting the good fight. And he didn’t want to talk about the sworn testimony. Winfrey didn’t push him on either topic.

He was also reticent on his relationship with evil genius Dr Ferrari, he of the undetectable super stimulants, professing only to the opinion that Ferrari is a ‘good man’. Winfrey let him get away with it, as she did his laughable contention that he didn’t realise how big his profile was at the height of his fame.

The interview was frustrating, not because Oprah didn’t ask the right questions. She generally did. It was frustrating because we were not seeing the real Armstrong, the King Kong alpha male, the super-competitor, the street fighter. ‘You come into my territory, I’ll fight you,’ he said at one point. But Oprah didn’t come into his territory. Rather, she asked what it was like in there. She let him remain in control.

The only way to see the true Armstrong, the snarling, bug-eyed, win-at-all-costs sociopath, would have been to step boldly into his domain and, once there, to go toe-to-toe.

‘You’re a megalomaniacal cheat who would sell his own mother if it meant winning.’ ‘You don’t even understand what sport is.’ ‘You are a psychopath, aren’t you?’ These would have been instructive conversation starters, but that is not Winfrey’s style. Armstrong knew it and that is why she was chosen for his first interview.

Armstrong is a born fighter – he told Winfrey that at the off – but we didn’t see it. As he sat in his seat, crossing and uncrossing his legs, scratching his head, straining to keep vast reserves of nervous energy in check, it was hard not to feel that minimal prodding would have unleashed the real man in that suit.

Damian Reilly is a freelance journalist based in London. 

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Show comments
  • Hexhamgeezer

    Nicole Cook, a retiring UK gold medallist, made a good point a few days ago. She talked of a male cyclist friend being offered a deal in a US team but it became clear that if he didn’t accept doping he would be out. And he was because he wanted to stay clean. this is down to people like Armstrong who are in a position to pull the plug.

    In recent years the European scene has got much cleaner but it is still there. A nephew of mine is trying to make it professionally and there are still hints in European teams about what may be required to succeed with them. Luckily there are plenty teams now playing the game properly with a key factor now being how self supporting you can be in the early stages or how much sponsorship you can bring to the table.

  • HooksLaw

    Forgiveness can come following repentance. The best example of repentance which brought about forgiveness that I can think of was Profumo.

    I think Armstrong and his ilk have a long way to go to emulate Profumo. We can be grateful he has come clean, but words do not equate with repentance.

    • 2trueblue

      I am not sure that there is any comparison. New research has indicated that Profumo did not actually have an affair with Keeler, he slept with her a few times, and she did not sleep with the Russian. It made a good story and the press were determined to discredit him and bring down the Tory party. Little has changed!

      Armstrong continually lied about his drug taking, bullied others, and by cheating over a long period deprived others from winning.

  • PokerKnave

    Did you expect anything else?

  • Austin Barry

    “…Armstrong, the snarling, bug-eyed, win-at-all-costs sociopath…..”

    This describes just about every other cyclist crazily, murderously, speeding on our streets, pavements and paths clad in their sexually-sinister Lycra, enjoying the exquisite perineum pain of their phallic saddles.

    • HooksLaw

      Your commute must be thought provoking, but I’m almost tempted to agree; you could add all the motorised variety in London. But being reasonable I will only agree with those who do not display lights.

    • Charles

      Why do they feel the need to wear “sponsored” lycra that they have bought at vast cost? The companies getting free advertising must be laughing their heads off

    • Fergus Pickering

      Oh come. Our chap isn’t like that at all. The point of any game is that you play by the rules. If you don’t then there is no point at all. The stuff about charities is irrelevant. Al Capone probably gave to charities. I expect Robert Mugabe does too.

  • alexsandr

    I think saying his was a victimless act is wrong. How many were cheated out of their awards and sponsorship by his wrongdoing.

    • 2trueblue

      You are absolutely right. Also there were those whom he bullied out of the arena. A big ego who wants us to believe that he did something good to balance his crimes.

    • Daniel Maris

      They were all at it.

  • Martin Adamson

    In point of fact, EPO has been linked to the deaths of something like 20 cyclists. Because it increases the red blood cell count in the blood, it creates enormously elevated risks of heart attacks, unless users have constant medical supervision. It’s far more dangerous than steroids and other doping products.

  • Curnonsky

    Oprah actually acquitted herself rather better than expected. She didn’t follow-up Armstrong’s half-truths and evasions but she didn’t really need to: the truth is already out there, what this show did was expose him to the world as the ruthless, calculating sociopath he is. Her expression of disbelief and even disgust said it all.

    And there is speculation that Armstrong’s reluctance to name names and come clean was related to his upcoming legal defense against SCA Promotions and the Sunday Times as well as a way of signalling to the Feds that he has information he’s willing to trade for his skin.

    But at the end of the day, this is what a complete and utter lack of conscience looks like. We are lucky he didn’t go into politics – he is frighteningly well-suited to it.

    • HooksLaw

      Sports people are selfish and self absorbed. We hear them praised for that in some quarters. F1 drivers are notorious for always being able to blame someone else and theirs is a cut throat profession.
      From there its a simple step to rationalise what Armstrong did.

      Too many sports became, maybe still are, battles between competing teams of chemists.

  • Sally Chatterjee

    “But I used my profile to fund research into finding a cure for the greatest killer of our time.”

    Oh no he didn’t. His Livestrong charity was only about helping people cope with cancer. Giving people resources, tackling stigma and good things like that. It was a fight to help those already sick but I don’t think any of his money went to research.

    I find this man up there with Gordon Brown as one of the most slippery people around. Like Brown many seemed to know he was a bad influence but held back from saying so. Like Brown he’s left a trail of wreckage behind and struggles to say sorry. The real man in the suit has been exposed as a creep and a bully.

    • AndyL

      Sally is absolutely right about LiveStrong. No money at all goes to research. However Lance did pocket some of the donations for ‘speaker fees’ and the like

    • Gary Gimson

      Sally. You are certainly spot on in regard to Gordon Brown.

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