Friday 19 December 2014

Pantomime performance of fallen hero

Published 20/01/2013 | 05:00

Any purgatory the cyclist is living in is of his own making, says William Fotheringham

There was an elephant in the Four Seasons hotel room throughout the two hours in which Lance Armstrong's eyes swivelled downwards, upwards and sideways in the second episode of his ordeal under the Oprah spotlight.

The elephant was this: what narrative would cycling's greatest liar and cheat produce? How would the process of concession – look at the lack of revelation on night one and substitute this for "confession" – fit into the story he would want us to believe?

For those who might wonder why Armstrong took the risk of appearing on Winfrey's show, the tale he wished to tell might hold the key.

The elephant broke cover a few minutes before the end of the second episode. If part one of the Lance and Oprah show could loosely be termed What and When (certainly not How), part two was How It Felt.

The ground was prepared with the subtlety of an emoting rotovator: how Armstrong felt when telling his son Luke he was a liar and a cheat (not good – Armstrong looked close to tears); how Luke had had to defend his father's name at school (at which point the stomach did leap, because how could it not?); how Linda Armstrong, Lance's mom, took it (she was a wreck, but it took a call from her partner to alert her son).

How about the trauma of losing $75m in sponsorship in a day, and perhaps struggling to make more in future?

That lost a little impact if you wondered how much of his ill-gotten gains from the doping years remain in his bank account, and cursed that Oprah was charitable enough not to ask him. He is in therapy, he confirmed, going through "a dark time".

Having established How It Felt, Oprah teed up the big moment by asking: "will you rise again?" Unintentional it might have been, but the vision it conjured up, momentarily, was that of Voldemort rising out of the cauldron in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

The elephant sprinted out into the foyer of the Four Seasons when Oprah changed her questioning tone. From soccer mom reproving a child who had mislaid his lunchbox she, very briefly, became Torquemada dealing with a mentally deficient Inquisitee.

"Did-this-help-you-become-a-better-human-being?" she intoned, the enunciation of every syllable at half-speed making it clear that this was THE climax. "Without a doubt," Armstrong said, twice, and then the narrative emerged.

"This has happened twice in my life. When I was diagnosed [with cancer] I was a better human being. I lost my way. This is the second time. I can't lose my way again. I'm in no position to make promises... the biggest challenge for the rest of my life is not to slip up again." He added a few seconds later: "It's an epic challenge."

In other words, the story Armstrong wants the world to read when he tells the tale of his doping is the second coming of Big Tex the comeback hero.

In this narrative, the dope scandal is the equivalent of a second cancer.

His way back into hearts and minds after the fall, from the hell of losing his seven titles, the terrible whirlwind that has engulfed him and his family, will be a second great comeback. Utterly nauseating it may be, profoundly offensive to anyone who has had cancer or knows anyone who has, but that is it.

"It's an epic story," breathed Winfrey. In the sense that it features the hero's descent into the underworld, perhaps the Armstrong story could be termed an epic. But any purgatory that the disgraced cyclist is living in now is of his own making. The distancing mechanisms he used with Winfrey are intended to create the opposite impression: that Armstrong resembles Icarus, who aimed too high thanks to his soaring ambition, and was felled by superior forces outside his control.

Defrauding sponsors of millions, perpetrating the biggest heist in sporting history, crushing minnows such as Christophe Bassons and Filippo Simeoni, bullying and intimidating witnesses, over a decade of lies, some under oath, became a "slip up", a euphemism comparable to the "flaws" in his character he had revealed the previous evening.

He rammed home the point: "I had it, it got too big, things got too crazy." If he had cheated his way to seven Tours, the blame could be placed on "it" or perhaps the "things".

Armstrong's wider agenda became clear as well. There was an obvious bid for a lower sanction – or at least an attempt to lodge in the public mind that he is being unfairly treated – when he referred to his life ban as a "death sentence" and said he was not saying it was unfair, an outstanding piece of double-speak.

There were few moments in the entire pantomime when he appeared to be genuine, and one was when he said he would "love the opportunity to compete" and would like to be running the Chicago Marathon at the age of 50.

The first volume of Armstrong's memoirs, It's Not About the Bike, tugged heartstrings worldwide and became a must-read for cancer sufferers and their families. The follow-up, Every Second Counts, was more self-serving.

The plotline for the third volume laid out in those few minutes under Winfrey's prompting can be summed up as: How I Returned From The Doping Hell That Wasn't My Fault. The title would need to express the utter selfishness of the man and his utter detachment from the reality of what he did in his doping years. One quote he gave Winfrey when asked about the prospect of competing again might work: "I think I deserve it." As a summary of why cheats dope, lie and bully, that would suffice.

Observer

Sunday Indo Sport

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