The Explainer: First, the Road to Recovery and now the Road to Redemption?
Tempting as it might have been, my good friend Patrick O’Grady and I decided not to crank up LiveUpdateGuy.com and offer up a running commentary during the “Worldwide Exclusive” on Oprah these past two nights.
“Why bother?” the sage from Bibleburg asked.
It would have been fun, but mostly because it would have afforded both of us the opportunity to catch up with the group of regulars, who have come to call themselves “LUG nuts.” That’s a bit of shorthand for that little community that comes together during the grand tours for a combination of race reporting, thumbnail sketches of local history, haiku and a healthy dose of snark.
For a race, it’s a nice little place to field questions, offer observations and commentary and – if the occasion warrants – rude descriptions of people who take themselves way too @#$%ing seriously. But to devote two evenings to one of that latter group? Nahhhhh.
O’Grady was right. Why bother, indeed. Dinner, a nice Cabernet and even sleep were each a better option.
Instead, I took a pass, catching up on video of the interview and others’ observations in those quiet, early morning hours that have become my favorite time of the day. So, yeah, I ended up watching the entire thing, but not in real time.
To be honest, there is something rather liberating about no longer being obligated to report on the “Lance story” with anything resembling a sense of urgency these days.
What interested me more than the interview, though, were the reactions from those I respect … and those I do not.
Reactions I wanted to hear
On Friday, I woke up in time to catch the Sunday Times’ David Walsh on the BBC, offering a mixed reaction to Part I of the interview. David was making the rounds, doing his seventh or eighth interview of the day and beginning to lose his voice.
His were opinions I wanted to hear. David brought a healthy dose of skepticism with him to the 1999 Tour de France. He left with a high degree of certainty, offended both by the arrogance of a drug cheat who could lie without flinching and the apparent unwillingness of the sport’s authorities to do anything about it. It was especially painful in light of the fact that we were there reporting on the first “Post-Festina” Tour. 1999 was supposed to be the start of a new chapter in cycling. Unfortunately, it was … but for all the wrong reasons.
What I admired – and still admire – about Walsh is that he stuck to his guns. Even when shunned by teams, riders and, yes, even friends and colleagues, he did his damnedest to get at the truth. The man that the Armstrong camp constantly referred to as “the f#cking troll,” finally saw the target of his efforts concede that he had been right all along.
“Do I feel vindicated? I will be honest and say no,” Walsh said. “Vindication comes when you are challenged by many people and you need other people to say you were right. I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, but I never needed other people to say I was right.
“I’m glad it came out but I never needed that to know that Lance Armstrong was involved in doping in ’99 … and every time subsequently since that time.”
Walsh did appreciate that it was Armstrong himself publicly acknowledging that he had cheated, but he remained deeply offended by the interview subject’s unwillingness to concede, for example, that Betsy and Frankie Andreu have been telling the truth for more than a decade.
When asked about the now-infamous 1996 “hospital incident,” in which he confessed to using a veritable pharmacopeia of substances in the years preceding his cancer, Armstrong demurred, saying he simply didn’t “want to go there.”
Armstrong revealed to Oprah that he had tried to make amends in a call to the Andreus’ home days before the interview. When asked if things were “good” with his former teammate and his wife, Armstrong acknowledged that he has a long way to go before that will happen.
“They’ve been hurt too badly and a 40-minute conversation isn’t enough,” Armstrong said with heart-tugging sincerity.
Then, much like the Alien bursting out of Executive Officer Kane’s chest, the old Armstrong suddenly reared its ugly head.
“I think she’d be okay with me saying this,” Armstrong incorrectly assumed, “but I am going to take the liberty to say this and I said ‘listen, I called you crazy and I called you a bitch. I called you all these things, but I never called you fat.”
Why Oprah didn’t just lean over and slap him across the face right then and there shall forever remain a mystery to me.
Meanwhile, Betsy, a guest on Anderson Cooper’s 360 program on CNN, was floored. Her emotional reaction didn’t flare up because of that feeble and dismissive attempt at humor. Hers was an honest, heart-felt response to more than a decade of abuse heaped upon her, her husband and his career.
Betsy is still pissed and, dammit, she deserves to be.
So, too, is Emma O’Reilly, who, after speaking to Walsh about doping on Postal, was characterized by Armstrong as an alcoholic and a whore and then sued.
“She’s one of these people that I have to apologize to,” Armstrong acknowledged. “She’s one of these people who got run over, who got bullied.”
Please, note the use of the passive voice here. It’s akin to “mistakes we made,” not “I made a mistake.” Emma O’Reilly was “one of these people who got run over, who got bullied,” not “I made that poor woman’s life a living hell.”
In O’Reilly’s case, a big part of that bullying came in the form of Armstrong’s weapon of choice, the lawsuit. Indeed, it was something he so commonly used, he had to hesitate when asked if he had filed one against the former Postal soigneur.
“To be honest Oprah we sued so many people,” he said, finally abandoning the passive, ”… I’m sure we did.”
That he forgot whether or not he had sued a financially challenged young woman, simply for telling the truth, underscores the callousness with which he approached the question. Rest assured, anyone in O’Reilly’s shoes being sued for libel by a millionaire sports figure, backed by a cadre of high-priced lawyers, would have no trouble remembering the experience. But for the fact that there many more examples, that answer and that answer alone demonstrated how little real regard he had for the people to whom he was “apologizing.” Contrite as he tried to appear, this guy really didn’t – and still doesn’t – give a shit.
Salle de Presse
Virtually anyone who has written about cycling at any point in their journalism career has weighed in on this one by now. Some of them I truly enjoyed, a list topped out by Bonnie Ford’s insightful and thoughtful ESPN column “Still moving reflexively in the rubble.”
Ford has followed this silly-assed story since 2000 and is among the most insightful in the American press corps. She is, by any measure, the best ESPN has to offer.
If you shift your attention to the other end of the qualitative spectrum, however, you hit Ford’s fellow ESPN columnist, Rick Reilly.
This week, Reilly’s column started with an email from Armstrong.
Riles, I’m sorry.
All I can say for now but also the most heartfelt thing too. Two very important words.
And my first thought was … “Two words? That’s it?”
Two words? For 14 years of defending a man? And in the end, being made to look like a chump?
No, Mr. Reilly, you looked like a chump long before we got to “the end.”
Reilly and a parade of others, including Sally Jenkins at the Washington Post, former pro John Eustice, the TV guys, Phil, Paul, Bob and, sadly, even an old friend and colleague with whom I’ve traveled and covered races, had to know. They chose to ignore the truth, denied the doping and, more importantly, stood by with hands in pockets while the bullying was going on.
They were the enablers who allowed a sociopath to run rampant through this beautiful sport for more than a decade, all the while inflicting incalculable damage on a group of fundamentally honest and decent people.
What I wish were final thoughts
So what are we to conclude from the two-night confessional? To start, for all of the criticism offered after the announcement of Armstrong’s choice of venue, I have to say that Ms. Winfrey did a pretty reasonable job. She did her homework, noting that she had read the reasoned decision and “all of David Walsh’s books” in preparation. Her questions were solid and based on allegations and incidents that a well-informed observer would raise. Her only failure was not to aggressively pursue those questions when the answer proved evasive. All-in-all, she did a good job and probably got more out of the guy than would a three-member panel composed of Walsh, Andreu and O’Reilly.
Personally, I came away from it pretty much how I thought I might: A little amazed at the fact that the guy was actually admitting to things he’d been denying throughout his entire career; damn sure that he’s not telling the whole story, carefully calculating what he does say and, finally, the feeling that all of us were somehow being manipulated into the start of a new and concerted PR campaign.
The Oprah interview seemed to be a calculated kick-off to the sequel to Armstrong’s original “Road to Recovery,” when he returned to cycling from cancer. Now, we’ve been duly primed and ready to follow this newly contrite messiah on the “Road to Redemption.”
Armstrong said he would like to open up and cooperate with USADA or a “truth and reconciliation” commission in cycling. Following the first interview, USADA’s Travis Tygart released a statement that he would like to have Armstrong testify … “under oath.”
I would enjoy that and it could go a long way to cleaning up the sport, especially if he opens up about the UCI’s role in all of this. Still, one of Armstrong’s not-so-secret motives in all of this is to reverse what he called “the death penalty,” a life-time ban from any sport that operates under the WADA Code. “Death penalty,” seems a somewhat hyperbolic characterization of a life-time ban from competition, but given the nature of the offenses, killing off this career seems fair.
I have my opinion, folks. I welcome yours.