Even beyond the seven Tour de France victories, the most improbable of Lance Armstrong’s achievements might have been coaxing a nation of sports fans to tune in to the Oprah Winfrey Network.
And once his recent interview began, few were surprised that Armstrong admitted to his long-term use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. That’s been obvious for years. Cyclists and former associates by the dozens provided testimony to this under oath.
No, the biggest shock of the interview was that Armstrong owned up to the fact that he’d been such an unrelenting bully and major-league jerk in the process of his denials.
We are tempted to congratulate him for finally displaying the first bit of human growth that wasn’t the result of a hormone injected via syringe into his backside.
But we must remember that the Oprah extravaganza (“World Exclusive”) had the exact motivation as his cheating in the first place, and the cover-up and deceit that followed: image.
Armstrong is trying to salvage a shred of the image that he built through cheating and sustained through lying – and turned into a massively well-intended charitable empire.
We in the media helped construct and buttress his myth because, dang it, the narrative was just too juicy for us to avoid.
The man had Stage III testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain, remember. And he had faced only a 40 percent chance of survival, but he came through after chemotherapy, brain surgery
and surgery to remove one of his testicles.
We may now assume that the one that remained was made of solid brass.
Because this guy started cheating with everything he could find, tests be damned, and he’d spit lies into anybody’s face when confronted.
But when the tests finally caught up to his level of technology, he was stripped of everything. It caused him to present himself in front of the Court of Public Opinion’s Supreme Justice – Oprah.
The bulk of his career, he told her in the interview, was “one big lie I repeated a lot of times.”
Yes, he cheated in all seven of his Tour de Fraud wins. No, he didn’t feel it was wrong, nor did he have a sense of guilt because it was the product of a cheating culture. No, he said, he did not think he could win those titles without cheating.
He kept repeating that he was driven by a desire “to win at all costs,” as if that were somehow an admirable excuse.
Through most of the interview, Armstrong flashed the cold, empty eyes of a some kind of competitive land-shark. Doping, he said without passion, was as basic to racing as pumping air into his tires. If he showed remorse, it was for being caught ... not for having cheated.
Oprah, meanwhile, gave him a soft landing spot. She sometimes squinted as if she were about to get really tough, but she mostly had a genial tone I suspect she uses when interviewing Tom Hanks about his most recent romantic comedy.
Some question whether Armstrong was entirely forthcoming. But we got the gist of it. He appeared in control and comfortable except when asked of the many former teammates and friends upon whose backs he left tire tracks.
When forced to testify under oath, many told the truth: Yes, they had knowledge of Armstrong’s cheating. But at that point, truth was so foreign to Armstrong that he started suing those who told it.
He conceded that he wasn’t even sure how many he had sued for their crime of truth.
It’s a tricky business being a sportswriter these days. In the same week of Armstrong’s admission, an even stranger story arose, that of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o.
As presented by us, the saga of the Heisman Trophy candidate had the requisite pathos, including the death this fall of his beloved girlfriend. By leukemia ... or was it a car wreck?
As it has unfolded, there was no girlfriend. Pure fiction. Te’o may have been involved in a hoax that would help create an image that could use to enhance his Heisman candidacy.
And if he wasn’t involved in the hoax, we might be forced to recognize the horrible possibility that some people on the internet might not be exactly who they say they are.
Fact is, we swallowed it whole cloth either way. It can’t be possible that a player could construct such an elaborate ruse for personal gain. Could it? But his story was so good, so dramatic.
And here’s the takeaway from these stories for us: Beware the image.
I keep hearing people push the concept that perception is reality. I thought reality was reality, and perception was what we inferred from the limited slice of information that we’re allowed to see.
We saw Lance Armstrong in the yellow jersey of a winner; we saw Lance Armstrong heading up the marvelous cancer-fighting Livestrong Foundation.
We didn’t see the other Armstrong, the one the cyclist had to confess to when Oprah asked about the different sides of certain people – jerk or humanitarian.
“I’d say I was both,” Armstrong said. “And now we’re certainly seeing more of the jerk part ...”
And there you have it, the truest statement of a five-hour interview.Dave Boling: 253-597-8440