Lance Armstrong speaks as part of a United Service Organization tour in Iraq, Dec. 18, 2007. (Wikimedia Commons)
This week Lance Armstrong, our most famous cyclist/cancer survivor/suspected Performance Enhancing Drug user, aims to do something more daunting than ride a bike up the face of the Pyrenees. He is attempting to ride Oprah’s couch back into the good grace of public opinion. On Monday night, Armstrong will, after fifteen years of strenuous, Sherman-esque denials, “come clean” and admit to imbibing illegal “performance enhancers” during his record-setting career. This will not go well—and not only because the broadcast will have already been leaked, dissected and thoroughly flambéed before it airs Thursday night.
If Armstrong were only trying to win back the public support he’s lost since the United States Anti-Doping Agency stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles, that could prove challenging enough. But he is attempting the public relations of equivalent of riding his bike through the eye of a needle. Armstrong needs to demonstrate to USADA that he is now, according to reports, on a “path to redemption”. This interview is meant to encourage USADA to lift their lifetime ban on Armstrong’s competitive career and allow him to enter triathlons as well as other events under USADA’s umbrella. But that’s not all. Armstrong needs to look like he’s playing ball with USADA while also gently challenging the most damning sections of their lengthy report on his performance enhancing drug use. Their expose, put together with numerous eye-witnesses over the course of years and at a public cost of millions of dollars, makes him sound like less of a run-of-the-mill PED user and more like Joe Pesci on a ten-speed. They paint the fallen icon as a bullying, intimidating and threatening presence who compelled other competitors to use PEDs and aimed to bribe or scare off anyone who attempted to challenge his cycling empire. And by the way, Armstrong is also seeking to rebuild his cancer foundation, Livestrong, which has taken a massive public relations hit since USADA’s lifetime ban compelled him to resign from the board.
He is attempting to use the forgiving, New Age, healing glow of Oprah to please multiple masters with a mix of candor, charm and puppy-dog sympathy. There is a slight flaw however in this plan, which would challenge the smoothest of operators: that’s the stubborn fact that Lance Armstrong is also a person who makes Rahm Emanuel look like Tickle Me Elmo. As his friend Sally Jenkins, co-author of Armstrong’s bestseller It’s Not About the Bike, wrote in The Washington Post, “I like Lance Armstrong, have always liked him. Not the fairy-tale prince, but the real him, the guy with the scars in his head, both visible and invisible, the combative hombre who once crossed a finish line swinging his fists at another rider, the contradictory, salty-mouthed, anti-religious nonbeliever, who nevertheless restored a chapel.”