Some thoughts on Lance Armstrong’s two-part, “Come to Oprah” interview on the Oprah Winfrey Network. (Where was I when Oprah Winfrey got a network? Were men around the country fumbling with their remotes trying to find this channel? Is she a candidate for president in 2016?) Yes, I watched. I had plans to go out with friends and then it snowed and I was tired. Oh, whatever. I guess I’m just a liar, too. Maybe Armstrong made me.
If you watched this looking for answers, you fall into the “fool me twice” category. I don’t know what was real and what wasn’t. If nothing else, Armstrong has proven to be a remarkable liar…better than any I can recall. I was interested in trying to see what his demeanor said, not his mouth. I’ve always had an interest in body language and he didn’t disappoint.
For what it’s worth, these are my thoughts on the interview. I base these thoughts on what I know of Armstrong along with my experience working with world-class athletes. I will try and avoid snark.
Is he sorry? I say no. He could have collapsed on the floor in tears and found Jesus halfway through the interview and I still wouldn’t believe he’s sorry. Humbled? Maybe. Embarrassed? I’m sure. I think he is capable of distinguishing between right and wrong, but on an emotional level, I don’t believe “sorry” registers.
Did he force other members of his team to use drugs? He says he didn’t. But he had a lot of trouble making eye contact with Oprah during his denial and repeatedly brought his hand to his mouth, both indicative of someone being less than truthful. I do believe grown men are capable of deciding their own paths. I know plenty of ballplayers who chose not to take steroids even though it likely stunted their careers and cost them millions of dollars. Unless Armstrong is found to have strapped them down or knocked them unconscious in order to administer drugs, I don’t care enough about this.
Did Armstrong ride in the 2009 or 2010 tours without the aid of drugs? That’s possible, I suppose. In 2009 he finished third only because of the tactical arrogance of his teammate (another convicted cheater). Otherwise he may have won. 2010 was a mess. Lots of crashes, couldn’t get a rhythm, no way to tell. I’m not qualified to judge his truthfulness, but it’s interesting to watch the difference in emphasis he showed when denying this vs. denying he forced teammates to dope. Night and day.
Part II of the interview revealed that he had promised his ex-wife, Kristin, who he does seem to still have a great deal of love and respect for, that he wouldn’t use drugs in his comeback. I suppose you could look at that as a good reason to believe him. You could also look at it as another reason for him to lie. I’m inclined to believe the latter.
Could Armstrong get someone fired for not getting with the program? Of course. I don’t know if he did or not, but NOBODY on that team was even close to as important as he was to their success. There was no heir apparent. There isn’t another athlete in American professional sports I can think of who had as much influence as Lance did. Not sure why he bothered to deny this or why Oprah felt compelled to pursue it.
Armstrong “cares a lot” about Christian Vandevelde? No sale. Did you know that part of his motivation to return to cycling in 2009 was his disgust at Vandevelde’s success in Le Tour? After Vandevelde finished 5th in the 2008 tour, Armstrong was quoted by cycling author John Wilcockson as calling VDV “a nice guy, but he’s not a podium-caliber rider.” You don’t embarrass someone you care a lot about like that. It was a cheap shot. My guess is not that he disliked Vandevelde, he just didn’t respect him as a cyclist. In Armstrong’s world, you were either a “win at all costs” guy or you were an also-ran.
I did appreciate Armstrong’s candor about being a bully. That felt like a pretty honest moment…almost a relief for him to get it off his chest. He came into that question so clearly irritated by Oprah questioning him about whether or not he forced other riders to dope, I thought he might break into a Colonel Nathan Jessup routine from A Few Good Men.
I also respected the fact that he didn’t go the way of the rat in the interview. That showed at least a hint of character.
His defense of Italian doctor Michele Ferrari falls into the laughable category. Armstrong doped. His team doped, but Dr. Ferrari, the most notorious character when it came to doping in cycling and a key adviser to U.S. Postal had nothing to do with it? Please.
Jerk or humanitarian? Armstrong says both. Agreed, but again, it was more interesting to watch him light up answering that question than the answer itself. Almost like he’s talking about someone else. That may be a necessary defense mechanism because this is such a mess.
Does he see himself as a cheater? He answered with an argument I’ve been known to make: the playing field was level so he was the best of a bad era. Not what anyone wants to hear, but the reality is this: Since 1999 a total of nine yellow jerseys have been vacated and a 10th would have been in 2007 if not for timing (Michael Rasmussen was leading the race on the last day in the mountains when he was kicked out for lying about off-season training. The guy that won the jersey would vacate his 2010 win for cheating.) That’s 10 in 14 years! Want a good laugh? Check out this NatGeo blog about the history of cheating in the Tour.
He didn’t understand the magnitude of his following? That’s possible, albeit ridiculous sounding. The only reason I’m willing to give that a second thought is because I remember when Clay Aiken came to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in his return to the Triangle after his amazing run on American Idol. He was so overwhelmed by the attention that he had me clear out a suite for a few minutes so he could compose himself before speaking to a reporter. He genuinely had no idea how popular he had become.
What about the failed drug test at the Tour de Suisse? Armstrong says it didn’t happen, Tyler Hamilton says it did. Pick a liar, I guess.
Oh boy! Armstrong DOES NOT like Floyd Landis. That’s an interesting relationship. Landis was Armstrong’s protege. They would train together in the off-season. Armstrong tried to give him a stage win in 2004, though Landis couldn’t pull it off (Armstrong won in amazing fashion, by the way). Landis bailed for the young, underfunded Phonak team in 2005, won the 2006 Tour, then was stripped four days later for testosterone irregularities. Landis denied the charges, of course.
Coincidentally, Landis also had hip replacement surgery following that Tour so by the time he tried to return to cycling two years later, he was no longer aided by drugs, riding on an artificial hip and just plain bad. He went to Armstrong for a job, was denied so he went public with the scandal. The rest is history.
I think Armstrong has to be a bit ticked at himself for not just giving Landis a job, any job, to keep his mouth shut. In all likelihood, none of this mess happens without Landis. How arrogant did Armstrong and his people have to be to not see this coming? I’ve read Landis’ book claiming he didn’t cheat in 2006 and this guy is pretty scummy. If Armstrong was Tony Soprano, Landis was Ralph Cifaretto. Of course he was going to nuke Armstrong if he felt like he was out of options.
It’s nice to know that Armstrong and George Hincapie are still friends. There was some tense moments during the 2009 Tour when Hincapie felt wronged by Astana’s racing tactics, and then Hincapie testified against Armstrong to the grand jury. Other people would have ended up under Armstrong’s team bus for such things.
Did his use of performance-enhancing drugs early in his career play a role in his cancer? Armstrong doesn’t think so, but I don’t think he’s qualified to rule it out. Evidence seems inconclusive at best.
The story about the woman finding inspiration from his book while watching her two-year old suffer with Leukemia really hit home. I’ve purchased It’s Not About the Bike five or six times and given it to people dealing with cancer and they were always grateful for it. He meant that much to a whole lot of people. Just a footnote to the Lance Armstrong story now.
Really glad Oprah slugged him for that stupid photo he tweeted right after he was stripped of his yellow jerseys. For a guy claiming to hate his alter ego, this was a pretty duplicitous act.
The story about how he told his three oldest children felt contrived, and I hate that I feel that way, but I do. I doubt his oldest son, Luke, responded the way he said he did. Sounded a bit mature for a 13-year old. Not buying the crocodile tears, either. Sorry, champ.
Oprah’s final question: “Are you a better man today because of this?” Armstrong’s answer: “Yes. This is the second time in my life this happened. The first time was my cancer diagnosis and I came back a better man (except for the whole cheating, lying, bullying stuff I guess).” I’m glad this is almost over.
Cheesy final thought by Oprah, “The truth will set you free.” Again, I quote Jack Nicholson, this time from As Good As It Gets, “Go sell crazy somewhere else. We’re all full here.”
Lance says he’s committed to spending the time it takes to win people like myself back. That’s a nice thought, but I couldn’t even begin to map that path back to redemption for him. Best I can do is wish him luck.
Some final thoughts…
Our guardians of morality, the sports writers, are really unloading on a man they were afraid to attack for so many years because of his litigious nature. It almost reminds me of the way police officers on a TV drama will beat the hell out of a suspect that takes a swing at a cop. I had no idea sports journalists were so loyal to each other. I’m not saying this in Armstrong’s defense, but a little context is appropriate. He bullied them for years. It’s payback time.
The real shame is that we’re missing out on a very interesting philosophical debate that goes way beyond sport. I’ve written about the good that Lance did for me and I’m not alone. The reality is, if he never cheated, most of the good that he’s done never happens. There may still be a Livestrong (that began in 1997), but would it be the powerful and good agent it is today? I doubt a charity founded by an also-ran cyclist would have raised $500 million dollars for cancer awareness.
And even if we now know that Armstrong’s story was a fabrication, aren’t there people he inspired to fight their cancer enjoying their lives cancer-free today? Aren’t there others like me who live a healthier life because of this fairy tale? That’s still real, right? I’m not going to wake up tomorrow weighing 320 pounds because it turns out Lance is a lying ass, am I?
Can someone please look past their vitriol and take the lead on this debate? Can you make the case that what he did served the greater good? I debate it in my head every day, but would love to read some opinions from those more articulate than me. I guess I’ll have to wait until they run out of venom.
And finally, a bit of snark…
The camera work in the interview was really, really weird. It’s like the operators were just learning how to use the zoom feature. Kind of reminded me of a Wayne’s World extreme close up. Waaaaaaa!
Thanks for reading.