Much has already been written and said about the Lance Armstrong interview with Oprah Winfrey. It ranges from naive praise to dismissive disbelief. My purpose isn’t to either defend him or further scorch the earth at his feet; rather, I’d like to offer some perspective to view this within the larger framework of the evolving myth of Lance Armstrong.
The general sentiment of Armstrong among RKP readers, the collective room temperature, isn’t hard to gauge. Many of you are tired of the lies, tired of the myth, tired of him. So why pay attention now? Because Lance Armstrong told the truth to Oprah. Based on what we know, not everything he told was the truth, nor was it all of the truth we want to hear. But he admitted to doping. It’s an important first step. That he wouldn’t roll over on any of his co-conspirators—in particular Johan Bruyneel and Thom Weisel—was the omission I feared would sour an otherwise bold change of heart. His continued denial of a coverup in 2001 at the Tour de Suisse was just as troubling.
When he told Oprah that he wanted to deal with what he had done, it may have seemed a noble move to some, but then he added that he didn’t want to address the actions of others. We all know that the best he could do right now is to be completely forthright.
What’s unfortunate about the first part of Oprah’s interview with Armstrong is that by drawing a line in the sand and telling her that he wasn’t going to discuss the actions of others he eliminated the anticipation that he’d reveal anything surprising, something we didn’t already know. Part two of the interview is a foregone conclusion. He will confess to some things we accept as true and he may deny a couple of details that we also accept as true.
The only surprises in store for us are really those items he continues to deny.
For my part, I was disappointed when Oprah asked him when he began doping and his answer wasn’t immediate, wasn’t detailed. Telling her, “I suppose earlier in my career … mid ‘90s,” is an unacceptably vague answer. The only way I’m willing to believe he doesn’t remember both the month and year he began is if it was some time in the 1980s. Either way, I’m unwilling to accept he doesn’t remember the year he began.
He also told Oprah that he wasn’t a bully before cancer. I call shenanigans on that as well. He’s never not been a rough-hewn character who wanted his way. When I was a race mechanic, USA Cycling staff shared Lance Armstrong stories the way stoners trade arrest stories. Those who told the stories did so with an air of amusement, that while his behavior didn’t conform with the genteel demeanor expected of athletes sponsored by USA Cycling, they were willing to indulge him, a tiny gift for a guy who was destined to make their stock split. Perhaps Lance and I define bully differently, but where I come from, only bullies always get their way, and until very recently, Lance got his way.
I think much of the interview was truly aimed not at the public but at his aforementioned co-conspirators. It was a flare from him to demonstrate that he wasn’t going to rat them out, that he could have, but didn’t. Considering Bruyneel’s appeal looms, it could also be considered a shot across his bow—’I didn’t rat you out, bro. Don’t rat me out.’ CNN is claiming that the interview was a win for Oprah, her biggest “get” ever (which defies comprehension), but backfired on Armstrong.
If indeed Armstrong’s interview is only worsening his situation, there’s a simple reason. What we’ve needed from Lance wasn’t just some truth, we’ve needed what we expect in sworn testimony—the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We, the people, don’t feel we got that from him, and that’s why this was a fail for the average cycling fan, if not the general public as well.
I will say I was relieved to hear Armstrong admit that a single call to Frankie and Betsy Andreu wasn’t going to be enough to undo the damage of nearly a decade of attacks. When asked if he was forgiven, he was bang on the money in his response: “They’ve been hurt too badly … and a 40-minute conversation isn’t enough.”
Still, nothing that he said can overcome the disappointment of hearing him say of his past, “Such a bad story, so toxic … a lot of it is true.” From the jaws of admission—an opportunity for real contrition and reflection—he managed to snatch defense. It’s a shame he doesn’t appreciate what we’ve all come to learn about his story—that it was so fantastic, so mythic in its scope that no one—not Landis, not Hamilton, not the Andreus—ever needed to invent anything about him.
The inventions were his.