I have a copy of Lance Armstrong’s first book, It’s Not About The Bike—a title that now seems strangely prophetic, or at least more than the subtitle “My Journey Back To Life”—sitting on a bookshelf somewhere in my parent’s house. I remember devouring those pages, buying into the whole inspiring story, perpetuated for over a decade, that Lance Armstrong beat cancer, then defied all reason to win the Tour de France seven consecutive times.
As he states to Oprah Winfrey in the opening segment of this extensive interview—so massive it’s broken into two 90-minute segments airing on back-to-back nights for maximum airtime—he himself bough into the mythic story himself, knowing full well that it was simply a myth. Oprah asks simple yes or no questions to lead off an uncomfortable moment, and Armstrong plainly admits to using banned substances
Many, many, many other writers more knowledgeable in the way Armstrong maneuvered his way through this deception have published at length on what we now know occurred and what we should think of Armstrong now. There’s nothing left to add to the conversation without this interview. We know the basic fact: Lance Armstrong is an overly arrogant douchebag—and despite his reversals in the interview, it doesn’t negate the heavy precedent of his entire cycling career. Everyone who ever dealt with him on a professional level and didn’t fall in line said it. But this isn’t mean to be another indictment of a fallen sports icon (and it seems as though we’re always just waiting for the next one, in baseball, golf, the Olympics, anywhere).
While I was watching, I had two big questions on my mind. First, as Gwen Knapp states in her column, I wanted some kind of contrition, any semblance of genuine understanding that what Armstrong did to his teammates and former employees was maliciously wrong, and that deceiving millions of fans and believers cannot be excused because it benefitted cancer research. This was my issue with the Penn State scandal as well—a large-scale sports scandal that occupies an entirely different criminal spectrum, to be sure—that contrition for past wrongs is paramount to me in this kind of situation. Armstrong has long cultivated a well-deserved reputation as a complete jackass—it even came up in a Deadspin Q&A with an anonymous PR guy—and actually recognizing his wrongdoing and conveying that somehow, in the recent months, he’d pulled a 180 and gone from the reputation trailing behind him to complete transformation is not easy.
Does he pull it off? Not really. He seems like a jerk, but one finally able to admit to everyone that he knows as well as anyone what kind of person he is. He comes clean on a ton of wrongdoing, but sticks up for the people around him, like Michele Ferrari (who still denies running a doping operation) and George Hincapie. He doesn’t hide behind the sins of the sport either, and that would be really easy to do—the majority of riders who placed during Armstrong’s winning streak have been linked to doping. The sport is entirely tainted and needs better control, but it’s dead in America. Nobody will ever care again, not even if an American wins cleanly.
The second big question of this interview is assessing the tangible benefits of talking at this precise moment. Armstrong has so carefully structured his responses—even the sudden, spitefully arrogant ones like a Twitter photo of his yellow jerseys—so what is the point of coming clean now? From the interview, and Oprah’s timeline of questions that lead from his first experiments with performance enhancers to the USADA investigation, Armstrong comes forward now not because of his conscience, but because he’s been backed so far into a corner that the only way out is to admit the truth and attempt to change. I significantly want to believe the very last part of that sentence, that Armstrong will take this moment, this seemingly bottomless pit of disgrace, and work to a point where he isn’t as angry, arrogant, selfish, and uncompassionate person. His foundation does incredibly meaningful work, and for that to die along with Armstrong’s reputation would be the real tragedy.
There are going to be people who pull out small parts of the interview, particularly Armstrong’s uncomfortable laughter at inappropriate moments, such as when Oprah asks about a few of the people Armstrong bullied into disrepute or sued despite knowing he was holding up a lie. But to his infinitesimal credit, Armstrong does a few things that could signal a turnaround. He’s calm and controlled, answers many questions that will forever ruin his legacy, and can at least feign self-reflection well. He’s also aware of how unbelievable any other denials will be after this point, which comes into question when he denies out of hand that conversations or events took place.
Still, he haggles with the full truth at multiple junctures of the interview, at one point prompting Oprah to ask if he’s just arguing semantics over what constitutes the truth. He stonewalls several avenues of discussion due to a refusal to name any other names or drag anyone else into the conversation. That’s a crafty move, taking all the blame and keeping the focus on his apology, but also a limiting factor, since it keeps Oprah from getting to the actual intricate details of the systematic doping regimen used by Armstrong’s teams. Oprah doesn’t exactly needle him into giving an answer—this isn’t James Frey, a subject whose lies reflected poorly upon Winfrey’s choice for her book club, inciting MadTV-spoof levels of rage. But she’s not lofting a bucket of softballs and allowing Armstrong to make his case. He’s agitated, uncomfortable, and he fucking should be.
As a piece of television, it’s very nearly riveting, but falls short because of what we knew all along: no pressing for details, Armstrong can’t change himself overnight and may not ever be able to fully adjust The big headline questions are answered in the first few minutes, and the rest is a collection of soundbites—like Armstrong calling himself an “arrogant prick”—which will probably live on forever.
- The second part of the interview airs tomorrow night. Topics include Armstrong’s children, his mother, and what he has to say to everyone who wore a LiveStrong bracelet. As someone who bought one from my high school nurse who was raising awareness for her dying son, that’s the answer I’m most interested to hear.
- The least interesting aspect of tomorrow’s conclusion will very clearly be Oprah asking about Armstrong losing his sponsors. Honestly, who gives a flying fuck that he was personally losing sponsorship money? DETAILS, OPRAH, GET THE DETAILS.
- Of all the thinkpieces and exposes written on Armstrong, my favorite is Mike Anderson’s personally heartbreaking story of how he got on Lance’s bad sign and paid dearly for it.
- Out of all the old clips that now look really bad (the 2005 deposition, his final medal stand impromptu speech before retiring), the worst has got to be this Nike commercial. It represents the absolute worst part of his arrogance and defiance in the face of the truth.
- One last thing: at one point, Oprah makes a comment about fame and how it magnifies who you really are. Her two examples? If you're a jerk, you become a bigger jerk; if you're a humanitarian, you become a bigger humanitarian. She doesn't say these are the two sides to Armstrong, though he certainly takes it that way. But I saw it as more indicative of how Oprah sees herself in contrast to Armstrong, as the ultimate giving humanitarian...despite what her reputation outside her underlings would say. From my notes at that moment, verbatim: "Oh Oprah, you can go straight to hell along with him."