Lance Armstrong cheated, lied and vindictively bullied for much of his cycling career, while lifting the sport and his own profile to unprecedented heights. (Getty Images)
Please, don't pretend to be outraged or shocked by Lance Armstrong's pitiable televised penance tonight. And please, don't be duped again by the man's motive.
This is why mythology in sports is dangerous, because super-human feats can be performed by super-flawed humans. Armstrong cheated, lied and vindictively bullied for much of his cycling career, while lifting the sport and his own profile to unprecedented heights.
Now he's broken by deceit and desperate to preserve his wealth (reportedly around $100 million) and what's left of his reputation (very little). The defrocked seven-time Tour de France winner reportedly admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs when he spoke with Oprah Winfrey earlier this week. The two-part interview airs tonight and Friday night, and it's important to recognize the mutual motives.
Winfrey scored the big sit-down to pump her fledgling Oprah Winfrey Network. And Armstrong granted the big interview not to seek forgiveness, but to appease the overseers of cycling and to satisfy the U.S. Justice Department, which is contemplating whether to join a whistleblower lawsuit against Armstrong.
His sad plea probably won't work, because his monstrous ego won't permit a full confession. Oh, he might soften some ugly perceptions, but his name is ruined and his legal battles are just starting. It's the price one pays for arrogantly donning the cloak of invincibility.
Armstrong, 41, is a man long driven by survival instincts, from his remarkable recovery from testicular cancer to his repeated denials of cheating. He wants his lifetime ban by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency reduced so he can compete again in sanctioned triathlons. He wants to start over after being accused by a dozen former teammates in a USADA investigation of masterminding "the most sophisticated doping program on the planet." The report last October was devastating, yet Armstrong's initial response was to call it a "witch hunt."
Since then, most of his sponsors have dumped him and his charitable foundation pushed him away, and he deserved every blast of scorn. Armstrong finally stopped fighting the charges, but I doubt wallowing in Oprah's chair will accomplish all he hopes. He reportedly isn't supplying specific doping information, which the USADA requires to reconsider its penalties.
More likely, this is the sordid end to a complex tale that many saw coming, the Armstrong mythology stripped bare. I'm not going to pretend I care about cycling, and I'd guess many Armstrong fans didn't either until his extraordinary story began to unfold.
He overcame cancer to become one of the dominant athletes in the world, racing through the French Alps every year, chased by those bitter foreigners who dared to challenge our mighty American. At the same time, he was raising millions for cancer patients through his foundation, Livestrong.
That money is real and the impact important, and in the grand scheme, Livestrong's good outweighs Armstrong's bad. But fundraising isn't quite as noble if you're also raising millions for yourself, and doing it under false pretenses. It's not nearly as honorable when you not only deny every charge, but try to destroy your accusers.
Former teammate Floyd Landis, also accused of doping, has filed a federal whistle-blowing lawsuit against Armstrong for allegedly defrauding the U.S. Postal Service, the team's sponsor.
Others who were threatened and attacked by Armstrong are set to fight back, including the Sunday Times of London, which once paid $500,000 to settle a libel suit brought by Armstrong. Another former teammate, Frankie Andreu, was publicly lambasted when he and his wife, Betsy, first suggested Armstrong was cheating.
In sports and in life, people want to believe in the unbelievable. That's why baseball's home-run era was so wildly celebrated. Now, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and other steroid-tainted stars are punished in absentia by Hall of Fame voters.
It's difficult to know anymore which great feats you can trust. Steroids and other drugs have haunted the Olympics, football and baseball. Coaches held up as paragons of decency — Joe Paterno, Jim Tressel — have been revealed as something else entirely.
Armstrong truly was unbelievable, winning races in a sport rife with cheating. All the while, he tried to convince people he was one of the last clean riders, beating his competitors with pure sweat and determination. Ha.
I'll watch the Oprah interview mainly because I'm fascinated by the performance, such as it is. Will he shed tears of remorse, or just peel off the outer layer, enough to satisfy his accusers?
In an interview on "CBS This Morning," Winfrey said she was "satisfied" with the two-and-a-half-hour taping, but revealed little about the depths of Armstrong's admission.
"I would say he did not come clean in the manner I expected," Winfrey said. "We were mesmerized and riveted by some of his answers. … I wouldn't characterize him as contrite, but I'll let people make their own conclusions."
Maybe he isn't capable of sincere contrition. He never showed it before, even amid the evidence in the 1,000-page USADA report. Armstrong pulled it off for a long time, effectively as anyone in American sports history. He might be done doping, but no matter what he reveals, I doubt he's done duping.
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