On any sensible reading of next week’s 90-minute Oprah Winfrey sit-down, tears
will roll, victim status will be staked out and personal damage limitation
will outweigh cycling’s need to know how far up the scale corruption spread.
If this sounds cynical, it is nothing compared to the industrialised deceit
recorded in the US Anti-Doping Agency’s report into how Armstrong managed to
‘win’ seven Tours
de France. Just as offensive as the drug use itself was Armstrong’s
habit of bullying and intimidating anyone who stood in his way. Ask the two Sunday
Times journalists, David Walsh and Paul Kimmage, who might have had
their lives ruined by Armstrong’s malicious libel action, which was part of
a pattern of hyper-aggressive denial.
The pharmaceutical offences are in one corner. In the other are Armstrong’s
Machiavellian orchestrations, which evaded full legal scrutiny until the
USADA published its devastating account. This is the side of him that will
sit down on Oprah’s sofa for an interview that will be minutely managed to
serve Armstrong’s purpose.
Notice that the word emanating from insiders is that Armstrong is eager to
return to competitive sport, in sanctioned triathlons, from which his
worldwide ban currently excludes him. Even this implies a purity of purpose
that is hard to reconcile with his behaviour as the world’s top cyclist.
A more realistic interpretation is that Armstrong knows his commercial worth
has been wiped out. The cost so far is thought to be £31million. His cancer
charity had its moral foundations kicked away and is trying to press on
without him. Better to take the full hit now, Armstrong might be thinking,
than to stay stuck in a shadowland of accusation and denial.
This is no safe gamble. To confess will expose him to a possible perjury
charge and other compensation claims. It will also greatly assist The
Sunday Times in trying to recover their £900,000 libel payout. Unless he
is credible – and humiliates himself on live TV, thus maximising his chances
of picking up a sympathy vote from the terminally gullible – public
forgiveness will be a long time coming.
Finally, he can see he is going to have to walk through a lot of fire if he is
to escape pariah status. His calculation must be that he might as well get
on with it, to bring the ending nearer, and manage the turmoil as best he
Choosing Oprah was an obvious first step. American network TV loves an apology
opera and Armstrong had better not disappoint. A show of arrogance or
dishonesty would send him back to the doghouse for good.
But enough about him. What can the sport gain from any mea culpa? Nailing
other cyclists is probably not on his agenda (oh, to be at one of his
pre-broadcast PR run-throughs). We already know cycling went through a long
spell of systematic doping – of decadent imbibing. What we need to know next
is who facilitated this culture beyond the peloton itself.
Here we are drawn back to the $ 100,000 (£62,000) Armstrong is reported to have
donated to the International Cycling Union, which opened the sport’s
governing body up to the charge of taking hush money.
It denies that charge and completes an internal investigation in April. This
week it emerged that Armstrong also tried to donate $ 250,000 (£155,000) to
the USADA, which declined the offer and exposed him eight years later. The
doping trail runs from cyclists to doctors to team officials and off in all
sorts of directions. The most pressing need now is to see whether any of the
sport’s rulers were involved, through complicity or cover-up.
For that reason Oprah is hardly the right priest for Armstrong to be
The interview panel should start with police and state attorneys. There should
be chairs for those whose lives he damaged and the whistle-blowers he tried
to frighten into silence. Instead this is confession as TV drama, as
attempted sin-and-redemption. Armstrong will probably try to wrench it round
to his own “pain”. He denied it far too often – and too aggressively – for
anyone to watch it without a sick bucket close by.