Lance Armstrong is finally ready to talk. And Oprah Winfrey is willing to listen. But does he have anything new and important to say? He and his interviewer will look plain silly next week if Armstrong just belatedly admits to what has become blindingly obvious: that he didn’t win the Tour de France seven times on bread and water alone.
Armstrong’s path to some sort of redemption, if there even is one, cannot lie in a televised and webcast chat with Winfrey, but in total cooperation with the anti-doping and cycling authorities who say he was a serial cheat. They could still use his help to prevent future deception on such a mammoth scale if he was willing to give it.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency produced hundreds of pages of seemingly damning evidence that Armstrong systematically doped. Who else knew? Who were the drug pushers? Who provided the medical expertise? How was doping hidden so effectively and for so long? Did officials who run cycling know? Were they paid to look the other way? How, precisely, down to the very last detail, did Armstrong, his teammates, doctors, managers and others for years run what USADA described as “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen?”
Those are the important questions for Armstrong, not how he feels about his downfall and being stripped of the Tour wins that made him famous. A few baleful looks of regret in his steely blue eyes, a drip or two of remorse, a flash of anger directed at those who exposed him or a give-me-a-hug speech about how recent months have been tough on his family would be compelling television, because watching once powerful people squirm always is. But talking to Winfrey won’t be of considerable help to the fight against doping, for his sport or even to any hopes Armstrong may have of perhaps one day being freed of his lifetime ban from competition.
Names, dates, bank records, email chains and sworn testimony from Armstrong. That’s what could be useful. Evidence that perhaps only he could provide to maybe expose others involved in doping — people who might still be in sport today, still maintaining the code of silence.
Another important question for Armstrong is whether doping might somehow have contributed to the testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain in his 20s. Armstrong has always maintained that he didn’t dope. If he now changes that story and tells Winfrey he believes it was a factor in his illness, perhaps that could deter other athletes asking themselves whether steroids are worth the risk.
An Armstrong confession “could be important for the future generations, and important for the sport,” said Filippo Simeoni, a former Italian rider. “It would be huge, especially if he tells everything.”
“The Armstrong phenomenon wasn’t just about him. The entire system was involved. He was allowed to do what he did with a lot of people’s help — for years and years,” Simeoni said in a phone interview. “It seemed like everyone knew but nobody said anything.”
Armstrong merely telling Winfrey that he is sorry, that doping wasn’t a major deal because so many in cycling were doing it, or that his campaigning against cancer should outweigh any bad he did as a cyclist, would be self-serving, useless to the effort to clean up his sport.
The World Anti-Doping Code offers the potential reward of reduced bans for repentant cheats who cooperate with the authorities and provide “substantial assistance” to unmask others. Sitting on a sofa with Winfrey wouldn’t count. Any “substantial assistance” Armstrong could provide would have to be given under oath to be considered for any possible reduction to his lifetime ban, the World Anti-Doping Agency says. It also would have to be new evidence, stuff USADA didn’t already have. And article 10.5.3 of the anti-doping code says that, at best, a lifetime ban cannot subsequently be reduced to anything less than eight years. So Armstrong, now 41, could be well into middle age before he might become eligible to compete again in triathlons, one of his post-cycling pursuits before he was banned.
So why bother talking to Winfrey, why agree now to what her website bills as a “no-holds-barred interview?” Armstrong said in a statement last August that “regardless of the circumstances,” he would never again speak publicly about the USADA charges. So why the U-turn?
Because, for whatever reason, Armstrong has decided that talking again is now best for him. But it’s what he says — or won’t say — that matters. Maybe he won’t confess anything to Winfrey. He could simply use her platform to once again tear into USADA and its CEO, Travis Tygart, accuse him of wasting taxpayer dollars on a “witch-hunt.” British bookmaker Ladbrokes was giving even odds Wednesday that Armstrong would tell Winfrey he is innocent and never tested positive.
Or he could maybe say sorry but not say exactly what for. Contrition without a confession. Say something just short of “I doped” to try to avoid legal exposure that doing so might bring. Wriggle past Winfrey’s questions the way he used to find gaps between riders in the pack at the Tour.
A plus for him is that Winfrey was ever so gentle when she interviewed Marion Jones in 2008. She didn’t challenge the disgraced former sprint star when she said that she never knowingly took performance-enhancing drugs. Jones said she believed she was taking a supplement — flaxseed oil.
“I take flaxseed oil,” Winfrey responded helpfully.
Winfrey is interviewing Armstrong at his home in Austin, Texas, so he’ll be on comfortable ground. What a hoot it would be if they speak in the room where Armstrong has hung seven of the yellow jerseys the Tour gives its winners. Last November, he posted a photo of himself sprawled on the sofa in that room, looking up at his shirts, with the breezy words: “Back in Austin and just layin’ around.” That was provocative, not seemingly the action of someone gripped by remorse.
If Armstrong does break the habit of a lifetime and confess, he surely would also have to apologize to begin rehabilitating his reputation and standing. Lots of apologies. To those he duped. To those who may have had more successful careers in cycling had he and his team not scooped up so much glory. To critics he savaged. To people who stood up to him, like Simeoni, the rider Armstrong tore after and tried to silence at the 2004 Tour after the Italian spoke to authorities about doping.
For all of that and for a career that USADA demonstrated was largely built on fraud, 90 minutes with Winfrey will not make amends.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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