Sunday, January 20, 2013
In his attempt to comeback a third time in his life (from cancer in '97, and to bike racing in '09), Lance Armstrong has already made one big mistake: the Oprah interview should have been five minutes long, not 2 1/2 hours.
All anybody has ever wanted to hear was Lance admitting that he doped--that's it. And he did that in the first minute of the interview. It was surreal to see the guy who had denied so strongly for so many years finally admitting what the rest of the world already knew. But as the interview continued, a funny thing happened: everyone wanted more. Just confessing wasn't enough. Had he stopped the interview after a few minutes (in hindsight, maybe it shouldn't have been an interview, and instead just a statement?), I think the public would have been OK with things, for a while. We all would have gotten our confession, and then waited to see what Lance would do next on his road to redemption.
But the interview went on, and on, and on--which gave Lance plenty of opportunities to revert to his normal, defensive nature. After making everyone happy and confessing, he then pissed everyone off by qualifying things. He said "I just took a tiny amount of EPO" and "I thought I needed the testosterone because of the cancer" (even though he admitted to taking testosterone before he had cancer). He played the semantics game when asked if he had demanded that teammates dope. The worst moment was the very strange "I called her crazy, called her a bitch, but I never called her fat" defense of his steamrolling of Betsy Andreu. Nobody wanted to hear his qualifications, nobody wanted to hear him playing word games, and all he had to say about Betsy was "I'm sorry." But he couldn't, because he's still not living in the real world--he's still on planet Lance, where all things revolve around his image.
I've always maintained that this interview was about two things. 1) He is the ultimate control freak, and his life is completely out of control. He went from a world where he was revered and in control, to a world where everyone was laughing at him and there was nothing he could do about it. This interview was a way of taking back some control of the situation. If you noticed, many times during the interview he specifically referred to things being "out of control." 2) He desperately wants to compete in triathlons again, and he knew that he had to confess to start the process of getting his lifetime ban reduced. Last summer, Lance was two months away from competing in the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii--a race some thought he would win, and a race I believe he deeply covets--before he was slapped with the lifetime ban. One of the few times he really lit up during the interview was when Oprah asked him if he wanted to compete again--he said "Hell yes! That's what I am, that's what drives me." He then made sure to point out that everyone else who had testified had been given six month suspensions, but he was given "the death penalty." It was his way of telling the world "this isn't fair," which the world doesn't want to hear from a guy who hasn't played by the rules for almost 20 years.
Lance had some good moments during the interview. The best, of course, was him finally admitting that he doped. No athlete in the history of sports had denied doping as strongly and for as long as he did. Admitting that he was a ruthless bully was also a good step forward for him. When he talked about his oldest son, Luke, defending him at school against kids who were saying that his father had doped, he broke down--and that seemed like an honest, difficult moment for Lance, which is something we never see from him. And, saying that he would be willing to help clean up the sport was a big olive branch from Lance to the cycling world, which was a positive.
He had bad moments, too. The qualifications, the semantical games, the defending of the evil Dr. Ferrari, and his insistence that he rode the 2009 and 2010 Tours clean. During the interview he said that he never felt like doping was cheating--that it was as natural as putting air in his tires. He also said he didn't think it was possible to win the Tour clean. So why would he suddenly not dope in his comeback attempt? The biological passport may have given him pause, but it's hard to imagine that, at age 38 and after three years away from the sport, he could come back and finish third in the Tour on bread and water. Many think he's looking for an eight year ban from competing, retroactive to 2005 (his last Tour win) so that he can compete in triathlons this year, thus he wants everyone to believe he's been clean since '05. However, it's hard to believe that he was clean, given the sport, given his history, and given his manager during those years (Johan Bruyneel, who is as dirty as they come). On the flip side, it seems like a huge gamble for a guy who is supposedly now telling the truth to lie about '09 and '10 and risk others coming forward and saying that they saw him doping during those races. But right now it's easier to believe that he would risk getting busted again than believing he rode those Tours on nothing but pasta.
Throughout the interview, I had the feeling that Lance was not sorry about doping, nor was he sorry about the way he destroyed people in defense of his lies. Instead, I had the feeling that Lance was sorry only that he'd been busted. Many think he's hit rock bottom, but I don't think he's close to that yet. I think he's in shock right now--shock that his world has crumbled. He'll get to rock bottom, one day, and perhaps only then will we see true contrition.
In the end, this was about as much as we could expect from Lance as he begins the long and maybe impossible task of repairing his image. For now, I'm happy that we at least got a confession. The rest of the world wanted much more--but they wanted the impossible. Lance wasn't going to suddenly flip a switch and cry for two hours and say nothing but "Im so sorry, I'm so sorry"--egomaniacal control freaks don't change overnight. Lance was correct when he said "it's going to be a process." For those wanting more--like names, doping details, full apologies and complete contrition--I think you'll eventually get that. He's got massive legal concerns preventing a lot of that from happening at this moment, and he's got massive personal issues preventing a lot that from happening immediately, too. His therapist may very well be a more important figure in his life than his lawyers as he attempts to move forward.
It was hard to feel sorry for him at any point during the Oprah interview, but afterwards I did--although maybe I was feeling sorrier for the sport of cycling and it's beautiful events like the Tour de France than I was for Lance. The general public, unfamiliar with the nature of the sport, is going to think that Lance just took some pills and then won the Tour, which is far from true. His doping overshadows the amount of work that he--and all of the cheating champions in cycling--still had to put in. Doped or clean, Lance is a phenomenal athlete, capable of doing things very few have ever been able to do. Lance doped, but he also still had to go punish himself on the bike for five hours each day in training, and turn himself inside-out during races to win. But that's the bed that Lance has made for himself. Before, most people looked at Lance and said "freak of nature," which he is. Now, most people look at Lance and say "greatest fraud in sports," which he also is.
(A great cycling hypothetical is the question of birthdays. There is no doubt that Lance is guilty of being a prick and guilty of doping. But can it be argued that he's also a victim of his era? My all-time hero is Greg LeMond. I would bet a lot of money that LeMond was clean during his Tour de France wins--in fact, it's widely acknowledged that LeMond was the last clean Tour winner. But I've always wondered what would have happened had LeMond been born ten years later? As a child, LeMond was driven by the thought of winning the Tour de France and the World Championships. He was at his peak during an era that was pre-EPO. If LeMond had debuted in 1992, when Lance did, would LeMond have tried EPO? The only way to win the Tour in the 90's would have been to dope. By the time EPO hit the peloton full-force in 1991, LeMond had already won three Tours and two World titles, and was set financially for life--he didn't need to dope. But would a 22 year old LeMond, or Hinault, or Merckx, have taken EPO if they had started their careers when Lance did? I think it's easy for riders of past generations to look down on the dopers of the 90's and 00's, but it was a much different game then--a game the older guys never had to decide to play or not.)
For Lance, step one is complete. He's confessed to doping. What will step two look like? Or step three? Will there be any more steps? I believe that, at some point, Lance will testify under oath about everything he knows about doping in cycling. He'll do that not to help the sport heal, but to help reduce his lifetime ban from competition, to increase future earning potential, and to help restore his good name--as well as some scene control. Competing and controlling are at the heart of everything Lance Armstrong does, and I don't think that will ever change.