No one has a playbook on “how to fall from grace.”
Despite the many who’ve played the role, it always comes with its individual quirks, rationale, revelations and redemption. And, as some have discovered, redemption is never assured.
Lance Armstrong’s fall has been long and slow, stretched out over many years of suspicion, investigations; lawsuits and fierce denials. The bumps and deflections along the way may have slowed his descent, but never fully averted it. And while it appears he’s finally hit bottom, there could still be further to fall, at least if certain parties decide to sue for injustices and hurts accrued. Whatever chapters are yet to evolve, this will not go down as a particularly happy era in the cycling anti-hero’s biography.
After all the anticipation and pre-show analysis, did the Oprah Winfrey interview, aired over two nights (1.5 hours on Thursday, January 17th, an hour on Friday), finally and definitively explain it all? The consensus is in and the answer would be an unequivocal equivocation… yes and no. A little, maybe, but not enough. He offered no significant bombshells, no particularly revealing rationale, and not much in the way of new facts. He was largely stoic and inscrutable, with very little expressed emotion (until a point in the interview when he referenced his son). He was candid in taking blame, in admitting his folly, but there was a vagueness about how far his retribution would go in terms of individuals he’s hurt. On the surface, the most illuminating and significant element of his admission was simply…the admission. The unfamiliar honesty; the clear “yes” to each of Winfrey’s questions about his use of blood doping and banned substances. There was something remarkable about that after the years of lying and obfuscation.
If you read through the volumes of articles and analyses that have already accrued about this two-night confessional stint, the opinions are as varied and vitriolic as they were before Armstrong came clean. Some seem to feel he is beyond redemption and so unlikable there is nothing he could say or do to win approval or regain public trust. Others are more willing to grant some measure of understanding.
Frankly, after reading various articles and reviews, I was surprised to watch the videos myself and come away with a less unforgiving response than many others. To me, Armstrong seemed clear about “why now,” he was candid and self-effacing, and while tightly contained emotionally, the moments in which he did break appeared authentic. I’m not an apologist – the guy was on my 10 Worst People of 2012 list – but it seems one’s analysis is either filtered though a deep well of negative emotion – as appears to be the case for many – or it’s based on an in-the-moment perception of what was revealed in this particular interview.
In looking at the interview as a whole, rather than parsing out individual answers or particular twitches or head bobs, Armstrong came across as a man who’s wrestled with some serious demons, experienced a myriad of emotions in dealing with the fallout while holding it together for his family, and who is both shamed and shocked as he looks at his own behavior through the filter of distance and dissociation. At one point, Oprah showed him a video of a rather pompous speech he made after his 7th Tour de France win in 2005, particularly damning with the knowledge that what he called a “miracle” was really a doped win, and Armstrong literally winced in his seat, calling his own comments “ridiculous.”
As to how the unfolding consequences have hit him, he made reference to a series of phone calls over the last couple of days from sponsors cutting him loose, which resulted in reducing his income by about $75 million and wiping out “all future income.” As staggering as that is, however, he commented that it couldn’t compare to the gut-punch of his “advanced diagnosis” of testicular cancer in 1996. His survival and inspiring push to not only recover but become one of the most talented athletes in a particularly rigorous sport vaunted him to the status of “hero” for many. “The higher they climb…”
Some of his more salient points were reflected in the shame and remorse he feels about bullying others in his quest to win. He talked about being so caught up in the culture of winning that the act of doping didn’t even register as “cheating” (he responded “scary… scarier… scariest” to a series of questions about his lack of guilt at the time). In a particularly moving segment, and where he gets most emotional, Oprah asks him about his children and their reaction to this event:
You and Kristin have three children together, what do you tell Luke, he’s 13, you’ve been fighting this thing all his life. What do you tell him and the girls what’s going on?
“They know a lot. They hear it in the hallways. Their schools, their classmates have been very supportive. Where you lose control with your kids is when they go out of that space, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, in the feedback columns.”
But what did you tell him?
“First I want to tell you what happened. When this all really started, I saw my son defending me, and saying that’s not true. What you’re saying about my dad is not true.
“That’s when I knew I had to tell him. And he’d never asked me. He’d never said ‘dad, is this true?’. He trusted me. I heard about it in the hallways…..”
What did you say to him?
“At that time, nothing, but that’s the time I had to say something. I heard he was defending me and it gets ugly and at that point I decided it was out of control and I had to have a talk with him here over the holidays.”
What did you say?
“I said there have been a lot of questions about your dad and my career and whether I doped and I’ve always denied it and been ruthless and defiant which you have seen, which makes it even sicker but I want you to know that it is true. Then there were the girls who are 11 and they didn’t say much. They just accepted it and I told Luke ‘don’t defend me anymore, don’t’.”
How did he take it?
“He has been remarkably calm and mature about it. I told him ‘if anyone says anything to you, do not defend me, just say ‘Hey, my dad says he is sorry’. He said ‘I love you, you’re my dad and this won’t change that’. I had expected something.
Did you expect defiance? Anger? Disappointment?
“Thank God he is more like Kristin than he is like me.” [Source: BBC]
He also spoke frankly about the sorrow and shame of being asked to step down from his cancer charity, Livestrong, claiming that the organization is like his “child” and losing their respect was deeply felt. He made clear he’d like to compete again – maybe “the Chicago Marathon when I’m 50,” but he also acknowledged that the “death penalty” of his lifetime ban from governed sports is not likely to be overturned. There were many other compelling points; links to the transcripts are below.
The post-interview debriefs around the web and TV were largely unfavorable: “dispassionate, unemotional, done by the numbers, minimal apology, rationalization, not under oath, narcissistic, needs rehabilitation, doesn’t know who he is,” and so on. I had a different take. I’ve been wrong about Armstrong in the past, defending him when it was unwarranted, but unless he’s a better actor than we imagine, I saw a person who came off as if in a state of dissociative shock, likely as a result of a major, likely irreparable, personal earthquake. Is he the sum of all those unfavorable words, reviews and analyses? It’s all surely in there somewhere. But I also believe, as horrible and repugnant as his many-yeared scheme was, as reprehensible the lying and bullying and manipulation, there is the matter of proportion.
We are a culture that loves our heroes, our celebrities, our WINNERS; we are also a culture that hasn’t shown any particular squeamishness about buying into the charades passed off as authenticity in many arenas outside of sports: the manipulated “reality” of reality shows, the Photoshopped beauty of fashion and entertainment icons, the digitally created perfection of vocally challenged pop stars; or, even more destructive as proven by the economic crisis, the manipulations of the stock market, the false values of our homes, and the lying, cheating and stealing that goes on with corporations and big businesses every day. Apples and oranges? Maybe.
But as the “pillory effect” plays out in the media, the various cultural reactions to Lance Armstrong – who he is and what he did – might need to be readjusted over time, as has been done for many who’ve fallen from grace. Adjusted from the unfathomable and unforgivable destroyer of dreams and honor, to that of a flawed man who lived and breathed a culture that was so collectively and systemically programmed to WIN, he got caught up and let himself get swept away, until it literally tsunami’d his entire life, including his sense of himself.
What’s the moral to the story?
“I don’t have a great answer there. I can look at what I did, cheating to win bike races, lying about it, bullying people, of course you’re not supposed to do those things – that’s what we teach our children. That’s the easy thing. There’s another moral to this story. For me, I think it was about that ride and about losing myself and getting caught up in that and doing all those things along the way. And then the ultimate crime is the betrayal of these people who support me and believed in me and they got lied to.” […]
“Only I can control it and I’m in no position to make promises. I will slip up every now and then. The biggest challenge of the rest of my life is to not slip up again and not lose sight of what I have to do. I had it but things got too big and too crazy. Epic challenge. [Source: BBC]
To read transcript from first part of interview click here.
To read transcript from second part of interview click here.