Lance Armstrong and Oprah: First Impressions

Lance Armstrong, Oprah Winfrey

I just finished watching the first installment of the Lance Armstrong-Oprah interview–almost twice, in fact. I’ll be watching tomorrow’s installment too (I am scheduled to talk about Lance on NPR’s “Tell Me More” on Monday, to be broadcast Sunday) and maybe it will alter some of my initial impressions.

But I doubt it.


1. Armstrong is not apologetic in the least, in any way, despite the occasional nod to apology-like langauge. He is not somewhat like, but exactly like, a mob hit man testifying before a Senate committee on organized crime. He is doing what he has to do, and if there is any genuine regret or contrition, I couldn’t discern it. Frankly, I am stunned at how unapologetic he is.

2. Most damning moment: Right off the bat, Oprah asks Lance “Why now?” It’s a superfluous question; everyone knows the answer is “Because I’m trapped; because the lies don’t work any more; because this is my best chance of persuading some people, the gullible ones, but we know how many of them there are, to give me a second chance.” I didn’t expect Armstrong to be that candid, of course, but I did expect him to have an answer, probably a contrite, self-serving one, prepared. He didn’t. “That’s a great question,” he said, stalling. Incredibly, he said he didn’t really have a good answer. “I know it’s too late,” he offered. Yes, I’d say thirteen years, marked by lying, doping, posturing and attacking is too late. That’s the best Armstrong could muster. Heck, if he just kept up with current movies, he would have had some great answers, like Denzel Washington, in the climax of “Flight,” confessing a career of flying commercial airlines drunk by saying, (I’m paraphrasing) “I just couldn’t stand telling one more lie.” Or that old stand-by, “It was the right thing to do.”

The sign of a completely unethical person is that they can’t even imagine what thinking ethically is like. On the evidence of this interview, that’s Lance Armstrong.

3. Most telling quote: while explaining that his 2009-2010 comeback is what opened the floodgates of attention and investigation that led to the explosion of his long campaign of deception and lies, Armstrong said, “Without the comeback, I wouldn’t be here now.” Translation: “Without the comeback, I would have gotten away with it, and I sure as Hell wouldn’t be sitting here spilling the beans to you.” He then terms his comeback a “mistake.” Armstrong is sorry he let himself be caught, and he is sorry for the consequences of his lies being discovered.

4. Most damning moment, runner-up: Oprah gave Armstrong a chance to apologize publicly to Betsy Andreu, the wife of a team mate who asserted that she heard Armstrong admit doping ( as well as claiming that he kicked her husband off his team for refusing to cheat). Armstrong had savaged her publicly, called her crazy, a liar, and a bitch. Yet he refused to confirm her accusations last night, saying that he “didn’t want to go there.” Making the ridiculous excuse that his recent conversation with Andreu was “confidential,” he bizarrely told Oprah that he had told Andreu that at least “I never said you were fat.” Armstrong is obviously still angry at Andreu, so much so that even now, as he supposedly “makes amends,” he can’t bring himself to forgive her for “ratting him out.”

5. Armstrong slips in rationalizations at every opportunity. Since he was suffering from the after-affects of treatment for testicular cancer, he says, he figured getting a little extra testosterone was only fair. Doping was like “putting air in the tires,” he says. He doesn’t qualify that statement by saying, “The way I was thinking then,” either. When he talks about beginning steroids, he says, “And then the EPO era hit.” It was the era, you see. Oh, later Lance says repeatedly that he “made his own choices.” But he made sure to plant the rationalization. “Everybody did it.” How much can you blame him?

6. Armstrong almost never says that what he did was wrong. His favorite term is “mistake,” as in “miscalculation.” (And as we know, everyone makes mistakes.) After Oprah shows him his speech upon winning his 7th Tour de France, chastising anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles, him, and the integrity of cycling—that is, lying his head off, Armstrong says, “That was a mistake.” Not an outrageous, manipulative, in-your-face lie, but “a mistake.” Later he calls it “lame.” Lame!

7. Oprah, to her credit, catches Armstrong in attempted spin and deception. In response to how he became a bully, Armstrong first says he has been fiercely defensive against any perceived foe his whole life. Then he talks about the defiance and determination to conquer obstacles he developed while fighting cancer, and the attitude that he would do anything to win. Armstrong then tells Oprah that he took this attitude right onto the cycling track, and if he had to take banned drugs to win, then he would. “But you used banned drugs before you got cancer, didn’t you?” asks Oprah. “But I wasn’t a bully then,” Lance says. Oprah doesn’t choose to remind him that he just said that the bully instinct dated from his childhood.

8. Lance tells Oprah he didn’t believe he was cheating when he was racing. He indignantly swears that he was clean during his comeback in 2009 and 2010, and that the official allegations that he was doping are false—as if this mitigates anything.

9. Another telling moment: Armstrong says he doesn’t blame one of his team mates for testifying about Armstrong’s steroid use because”He was under a lot of pressure.” Here and elsewhere, it is obvious that the concept of someone admitting doping or revealing another cyclist’s doping simply because it’s the right thing to do has never crossed his mind.

10. Armstrong tells Oprah that the day he wishes he had back is when he was confronted with the results of the massive report documenting testimony, test results and more. Instead of delivering an angry denial and initiating a lawsuit to block the report, he now says, Lance wishes he had talked to his family, his sponsors, and his foundation, and come clean. The reason is obvious: the course he chose didn’t work. Does anyone believe that if it had worked, and his law suit had blocked the report, Armstrong wouldn’t still be professing his guilt and attacking anyone who doubted him?

11. At several points, Armstrong says, “I know there is no reason anyone should believe me when I say this...” Correctamundo! There is no way of knowing what part of his narrative Armstrong is lying about and when he is telling the truth. He is permanently unbelievable.

12. Funniest Oprah moment: She says to Lance, “You and I both know that fame makes us more of what we already are. If you’re a jerk, you become a bigger jerk; if you’re a humanitarian, you become a bigger humanitarian.” Gee, I wonder who Oprah thinks is the jerk, and who she thinks is the humanitarian? Armstrong assumes she means him in both cases, and perhaps she does, but I laughed out loud when she said it.

My over-all impression of Armstrong throughout the interview was of a coldly calculating manipulator, without a hint of genuine contrition. Armstrong keeps saying that he would do literally anything to win, and this interview, I believe, is just one more ordeal he feels he must endure as a means to an end.

By the by: in preparation for my NPR spot about Lance, I reviewed my previous posts about him. Amazingly, there are twelve. I think this one, from May, 2011, is probably the best of them: I nailed it, if I do say so myself.


Graphic: Washington Post (AP)

4 thoughts on “Lance Armstrong and Oprah: First Impressions

  1. In my discussions of Aristotle’s Poetics with my classes, I talk about the evolution of the Greek word hamartia. Originally, the word meant to “miss the mark,” as in shooting an arrow that doesn’t hit its target. Then it came to mean a mistake in judgment, as in selecting the wrong person for a job: you probably should have known better, but there were no moral failings involved in the decision. By the time of the Greek New Testament, it meant “sin,” (The big discussion among scholars is how far the word had evolved from definition #2 to definition #3 by the time of Aristotle.)

    So, you see, Armstrong isn’t a self-justifying jerk; he’s just taking us back to an earlier age, when his hamartia would have a different meaning.

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