Armstrong’s week of discordant redemption

2013-01-20 10:00

Lance Armstrong, the cyclist/cancer survivor/suspected performance-enhancing-drug (PED) user, this week aimed to do something more daunting than ride a bike up the face of the Pyrenees.

He attempted to ride Oprah’s couch back into the good grace of public opinion.

On Monday night, Armstrong, after 15 years of strenuous denials, “came clean” and admitted to imbibing illegal “performance enhancers” during his record-setting career.

If Armstrong were only trying to win back the public support he’s lost since the US Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles, that would have proved challenging enough.

But a successful public relations attempt means he will have to ride his bike through the eye of a needle. Armstrong needs to demonstrate to Usada he is now, according to reports, on a “path to redemption”.

He is hoping Usada will lift its lifetime ban on his competitive career and allow him to enter its events.

He also needs to look like he’s playing ball, while gently challenging the most damning sections of their report.

Their exposé, put together with numerous eyewitnesses over the course of years and at a public cost of millions of dollars, makes him sound like something of a sociopath.

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 attempted to use the forgiving, New Age, healing glow of Oprah to please multiple masters with a mix of candour, charm and puppy-dog sympathy.

But that’s just not who he is.

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, antireligious nonbeliever who nevertheless restored a chapel.”

To Jenkins, however, he is far from being the bullying, even criminal, ringleader the Usada report describes.

Armstrong needs to figure out a way to deny this part of the report, while also demonstrating repentance.

At the same time, if he opens up too much about what went on behind closed doors, he could expose himself to a slew of lawsuits.

He’s already being sued by The London Sunday Times, which are aiming to recover £300 000 (R4.2 million) they were ordered to pay him in a libel case concerning his PED use.

He’s also facing a federal whistle-blower lawsuit issued by former team-mate Floyd Landis, who was likewise stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title for using PEDs.

Landis claims Armstrong’s attorneys tried to intimidate him into silence after he accused his former friend and team-mate of using PEDs.

The US Justice Department will have watched the Oprah interview to assess whether to enter the fray, back Landis’ lawsuit and attempt to get back the $30 million (R265 million) the US Postal Service spent in sponsoring Armstrong’s team.

Armstrong is also, according to USA Today, trying to mend fences with Landis in the hope he will drop his suit.

Armstrong’s waking nightmare could still get one whole hell of a lot worse. – The Nation, distributed by Agence Global

» Zirin is the author of Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (Scribner)

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