The interview won’t air until tomorrow, but the story that Lance will admit to Oprah of using performance enhancing drugs makes us all ask the same question. Does Oprah still have a network?
That’s really the only revelation likely to come from the dialogue, since only the most ardent disbelievers still imagined Lance rode clean all these years. He’ll tell the public limited facts about the process, although allegedly he won’t admit to being the so called “ring leader” of the sophisticated drug program. He’ll simply admit to being just another guy in the peloton who doped to stay relevant, just like everyone else on the road. He’s part of the gang, just no Al Capone. Given Armstrong’s actions over the years, it’s hard to image this to be true. But truth seekers will have to settle for this for the time being.
Lance may tell more to the authorities. It’s reported he may confess to the World Anti Doping Agency or the US Anti Doping Agency, two organizations he derided for years, and rat out people who were complicit. That includes the International Cycling Federation, who Armstrong may claim were bribed to mask positive drug tests. If that exchange does in fact happen, it’ll be like Jennifer Aniston sharing Christmas photos with Angelina Jolie. These people just don’t like each other.
Even before the interview has run, many if not most sports writers have lambasted Lance. That’s not surprising, even though a whole lot of them seemed fairly oblivious to the obvious for the decade prior. People aren’t just mad that he lied repeatedly and indignantly to the public and that he cheated the sport. It’s that Armstrong’s sins became remarkably personal and vindictive. He ruined people that dared suggest the truth and publicly bullied everyone from journalists to personal assistants, using his self-righteous platform to emotionally and often financially destroy folks. It’s was David vs. Goliath, and Goliath was cheating. For that, more than anything, Armstrong’s lofty positioning has fallen like a turkey from an airplane, to use an old WKRP reference.
It’s fairly obvious why Lance is going public. He’s a narcissist, and for all practical purposes, he’s cut off from all possible forms of self inflation. He’s banned from sport, largely removed from his own charity, and by all accounts lives on an eroding island of his own making. So by showing some contrition, he joins the legions of reformed American heroes, a cult that includes everyone from Ray Lewis to Bill Clinton. The afterlife of decrowned royalty can be just fine, thank you. And if he plays his cards right with the authorities, perhaps Lance might be able to return to racing triathlons, his winning passion of the moment until the recent ban. In fact, Lance was well on his way to contending at the Hawaiian Ironman this year before it all went south.
The problem is, redemption may not come so easily for Lance. Unlike Lewis, and Barry Bonds, and even Michael Vick, Lance Armstrong wasn’t so much a sports hero. He was an actual hero, someone who started down cancer and won before taking on the world. Cycling and the Tour de France just happened to be the literal road map to deity, the place where he proved his otherworldliness. That’s different than baseball or football players who go afoul. When Barry Bonds cheats and lies, it matters to us because baseball matters to us. Which is why the average non-baseball fan American couldn’t care less about Bonds’s current or future redemption. No one, at least no one I know, prayed to Bonds when their kid got sick.
But they did for Lance. That’s why people who haven’t seen a bike since grade school care deeply about Lance. They care because they believed in the impossible, in dreams and miracles. In fact, Lance himself said it best in his own book title – it’s not about the bike. And that means that even in his admission to Oprah, even if he’s allowed to get back and ride, the bike may not set him free. You can take back to the field, but you can’t reclaim innocence, even though Armstrong seems determined to try. It’s yet another case of Lance assuming the rules, both real and sociological, just don’t apply to him. Depending on how things all play out, he may discover that in fact, they do. And that, not any backhanded confession, might be the greatest revelation of this whole ordeal.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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