Lance Armstrong could yet manage to emerge a hero. ‘What’s the crime?’ is all he needs to ask. ‘Who died?’ On one side, a lot of people interested in the somewhat esoteric topic of who can make a bicycle go fastest were conned. On the other, more than half a billion dollars raised to fight cancer. Which is more important?
‘Oprah, I cheated. I cheated to beat a field full of cheats. You got me. But I used my profile to fund research into finding a cure for the greatest killer of our time. If I wasn’t winning, that wouldn’t have happened. You do the math.’
Why didn’t he just say that?
Again and again, Oprah asked him about the lies, seemingly amazed that anyone would ever cling to an untruth. Armstrong, with a winning forbearance, tried to explain. He even went so far as calling himself an ‘arrogant prick’.
Why didn’t he just give the obvious, and truthful, answer? ‘Oprah, when you start lying you have to keep lying. Everyone knows that. Have you read no Shakespeare? I wove a tangled web.’
He didn’t even point out that anyone – and there millions of them – who believes he is solely responsible for doping in cycling wilfully misses the point. It may be clean, or cleaner, now, but top-level endurance cycling has a history of endemic doping that goes back to the 1950s. They were all at it. They have always all been at it.
I am not for a moment suggesting that Armstrong is any type of hero. He is a man who has accumulated vast wealth by shamelessly and remorselessly cheating, and for a decade bullied anyone who said otherwise into submission. But last night’s interview – the first instalment of his time in the chair across from Winfrey – was surely a chance for him to plead some sort of perspective.
In that respect, it was a missed opportunity. And as much as it is possible to admire him for doing the interview at all, it was notable that he did not yet seem prepared to come completely clean.
He ducked elaborating on previous sworn testimony in which he denied, on his deathbed, telling a doctor that he had swallowed an illegal pharmacy. And he flatly denied a $100,000 donation to doping police the UCI was a kickback or a bribe.
Admitting either of these allegations was true – perjury or bribery – would lead to prison. The donation, then, was presumably made only to ensure the UCI could go on fighting the good fight. And he didn’t want to talk about the sworn testimony. Winfrey didn’t push him on either topic.
He was also reticent on his relationship with evil genius Dr Ferrari, he of the undetectable super stimulants, professing only to the opinion that Ferrari is a ‘good man’. Winfrey let him get away with it, as she did his laughable contention that he didn’t realise how big his profile was at the height of his fame.
The interview was frustrating, not because Oprah didn’t ask the right questions. She generally did. It was frustrating because we were not seeing the real Armstrong, the King Kong alpha male, the super-competitor, the street fighter. ‘You come into my territory, I’ll fight you,’ he said at one point. But Oprah didn’t come into his territory. Rather, she asked what it was like in there. She let him remain in control.
The only way to see the true Armstrong, the snarling, bug-eyed, win-at-all-costs sociopath, would have been to step boldly into his domain and, once there, to go toe-to-toe.
‘You’re a megalomaniacal cheat who would sell his own mother if it meant winning.’ ‘You don’t even understand what sport is.’ ‘You are a psychopath, aren’t you?’ These would have been instructive conversation starters, but that is not Winfrey’s style. Armstrong knew it and that is why she was chosen for his first interview.
Armstrong is a born fighter – he told Winfrey that at the off – but we didn’t see it. As he sat in his seat, crossing and uncrossing his legs, scratching his head, straining to keep vast reserves of nervous energy in check, it was hard not to feel that minimal prodding would have unleashed the real man in that suit.
Damian Reilly is a freelance journalist based in London.