Wednesday 19 June 2019

Cycling: Glimpses and admissions but always Armstrong's hollow core

Lance Armstrong speaks to Oprah Winfrey in Austin, Texas (AP/Harpo Studios)
Lance Armstrong speaks to Oprah Winfrey in Austin, Texas (AP/Harpo Studios)

Tommy Conlon

In keeping with a complex man, Lance Armstrong's interview with Oprah Winfrey last week left the viewer dangling between a range of ambivalent messages and mixed impressions.

On the one hand he volunteered descriptions of himself which taken together amount to a fairly damning self-portrait. Over the course of the two-and-a-half-hour broadcast he admitted he'd been guilty of "the betrayal" of his millions of fans. This, he said, was "the ultimate crime".

He called himself "toxic", "ruthless", "a bully", "a jerk", a cheat, a liar, a control freak. He had no credibility anymore, "no moral platform". He was "sick", "narcissistic", an "arrogant prick"; and, speaking of himself in the third person, he said "I don't like that guy".

For a man so fond of litigation in his glory days, he could almost sue himself after that self-imposed rap sheet. Armstrong v Armstrong. And there'd be no shortage of witnesses to support the version that presented itself to the world last Thursday and Friday night. But he did go some distance in terms of the self-flagellation that is a necessary part of this TV ritual.

His performance however has been met with widespread scepticism on both sides of the Atlantic. And the scepticism was amplified by his chosen platform: why Oprah? It was too obvious: Oprah is in the redemption business. She is the high confessor for the famous and fallen. She hears their sins and wipes their tears; she preaches the moral lesson, after which she grants them forgiveness. Her television show is where broken reputations are redeemed. Lance therefore was following a well-worn path for high-end sinners.

And what were his motives? He was bound to have some self-serving agenda. At the practical level, he would be making a play to have his lifetime ban from sporting competition rescinded. At a more holistic level, he would be playing the sympathy card, pleading for mitigation, and in the process rebuilding his image.

But this was the softball route. If he really wanted to get serious about his repentance, he would instead go straight to the United States Anti-Doping Agency and deliver the goods, chapter and verse. He would open up the entire dossier on his doping career. So, there was widespread scepticism before Armstrong even sat down under the television lights. In the court of public opinion, most people already had their minds made up.

But the interview still deserved to be examined on its own merits. And, as it turned out, Winfrey did better than was generally expected. If Armstrong had been prepared to open up, we would have learned a great deal more about his behaviour and psychology. But he didn't. He kept the lid on; he stayed in locked-down mode. Frustratingly, there were revelatory interludes, startling glimpses and admissions. But mostly he remained the cold and strategic media operator familiar to anyone who has followed his career.

Early on in the interview she asked him about the actual doping process. "How did you do it? I'd like you to walk me through it. How did it work?" But he circled the subject and flannelled. He admitted to using EPO, testosterone and blood transfusions. But he didn't plunge into any detail. The diary of a doper, the logistics of doping: she inquired, he evaded. Asked how he avoided getting caught all those years, he archly replied: "It (was) just a question of scheduling."

This became a pattern in the exchanges: an interesting morsel, an enigmatic answer that cried out for elaboration. Armstrong is an exceptionally intelligent sportsman. He long ago became a formidably skilled navigator of awkward questions. "Were you a bully?" "Yeah, yeah, I was a bully." "Tell me how you were a bully?" "I was a bully in the sense that I tried to control the narrative . . ."

Tried to control the narrative. It was a rather Orwellian way of putting it. How he bullied is how anyone bullied: he frightened people. He threatened and intimidated them through his words, his actions and his litigation. There were flesh-and-blood victims. But then, later on, another glimpse behind the curtain. Asked about Emma O'Reilly, the Dublin masseuse whom he'd smeared, he blankly admitted: "She's one of these people that got run over, got bullied."

But by and large he remained on the surface. The admissions of bullying, cheating and lying were headlines without stories.

And all the time there was this odd disconnect between words and feelings. He made these admissions as if they were abstract notions; as if they were the property of someone else, a third party. It meant there was a hollow core at the heart of what was at times a fascinating discourse. One could say it's to his credit that he didn't reach for cheap emotional points along the way. He didn't actually play the sympathy card; he remained scrupulously blank and neutral; he wavered only slightly, when discussing the impact of the scandal on his children.

On a number of occasions Winfrey played old video clips of Armstrong telling blatant lies. He showed neither shame nor embarrassment when asked about them. Then again, he didn't show much empathy for himself either.

Winfrey usually has tissues to hand when these set-piece confessionals reach their emotional climax. The guest needs them, she needs them, the audience needs them. But no one needed them on this occasion: neither Armstrong, Oprah or the millions watching at home.

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