Lance Armstrong to confess to doping? Thanks to USADA there’s already hundreds of pages of evidence. At first the Oprah Winfrey interview looked like a celebrity stunt. Only the story now seems to be going a step further with reports that Armstrong will testify against senior UCI officials, shifting the story away from sofa interview into the saddle of pro cycling.
But the road to redemption will make riding seven Tours look easy. For starters if he wants to reduce his ban, getting it shorter than eight years looks tough and that’s just confronting the textual certainty of the WADA Code. Changing public opinion is altogether different.
Why now? Armstrong’s refusal to admit to anything since the USADA verdict probably owes more to legal worries than personal problems and self-denial. To confess in full would expose him to massive litigation risk. Treading the frontiers of morality, public perception and the law is no easy task. Presumably he has found a way through, or at least a vague map.
Confession vs Apology
You can say sorry without admitting much. See Jason Giambi, a baseball player with the New York Yankees caught in the BALCO scandal. In 2005 New York times reported his apology:
“I accept full responsibility for that, and I’m sorry,” he said.
What he did not fully say, however, was what he was sorry for.
Giambi was caught but could not admit to the use of steroids. “I know the fans might want more,” Giambi said. “But because of all the legal matters, I can’t get into specifics.” A fuller confession came a few years later.
It seems Armstrong is going further. A publicity caravan worthy of the Tour de France precedes the Oprah interview by several days, lobbing leaked freebies and supplying drive-by briefings to the waiting fans and media.
Setting the tempo
Armstrong’s been readying public opinion in the textbook way he’d soften up the peloton. Just as he hired Michele Ferrari, now he’s got Mark Fabiani, the public relations consultant who helped President Clinton and Goldman Sachs through difficult moments. Fabiani’s staff plus an entourage of lawyers will have prepared Armstrong as diligently as Ferrari: rehearsing lines, simulating tactical scenarios and measuring word count. Just as Armstrong had a hotline to the UCI in his race days, these days his team are working the phone to USADA.
Out on the road photographer Graham Watson seems to be the first to take a pull on the front for Armstrong train with his blog with gems like the level playing field fallacy and curious relativism: “he didn’t kill anyone along the way, and as a father of five, he’s no child molester either.” Since then many sections of the media have taken pulls with briefings, citing familiar sources to set the tempo of opinion. Like Jan Ullrich putting his Telekom team to work, even Armstrong’s opponents like Sunday Times journalist David Walsh have helped with publicity. All that remains now is for Oprah’s verbal slipstream to lead Armstrong out of the valley of denial towards the a scripted TV confession, preferably with a money-shot “look” to rival the moment he stared at Ullrich on the Alpe. Only there’s no finish line.
The Col de Rédemption
The Oprah Winfrey show is merely a primetime prologue. It’ll set the tone, many will all extrapolate from his performance, but the key stages lie ahead. The hors catégorie Col de Rédemption awaits, its incline lined with a crowd of cynical journalists, angry fans and disgusted cancer patients. There are legal potholes deep enough buckle any bank account plus the slippery descent into a place called humility. Johan Bruyneel doesn’t appear to be in the driving seat. What about all the prize money he earned? Will he flick Hein Verbruggen into the ditch? Oprah is just the start.
Can you believe it?
For years one of Armstrong’s attack lines was that the likes of Floyd Landis were proven liars who could not be believed. Since they lied for years about doping even when confronted and convicted, how could people believe their allegations against Armstrong? Now this weak logic could apply to Armstrong: he lied and denied for so long so why should we believe him now? I joked on Twitter about onion-doping to get the tears flowing for TV but there’s a serious point: given the lengths he went to with doping and concealment, what chance the full truth comes out now?
For years Armstrong hid inside a fortress of deceit ringed with a yellow moat of charity. Each new lie and every statement of denial made the walls ever thicker. It’s partly why he’s on a different register to contemporaries like Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso or the late Marco Pantani. Climbing out from the rubble will take more than a TV chatshow. That’s why news of talks with USADA matters and now the reports that he will testify against others, notably “officials from the UCI.”
Reducing the ban
What can he get from this? Well a reduction in the life ban is possible but only by bargaining. Here’s the WADA code’s Article 10 (my selection and emphasis):
10.5.3 An Anti-Doping Organization… may… suspend a part of the period of Ineligibility imposed in an individual case where the Athlete or other Person has provided Substantial Assistance … …The extent to which the otherwise applicable period of Ineligibility may be suspended shall be based on the seriousness of the anti-doping rule violation committed by the Athlete or other Person and the significance of the Substantial Assistance provided by the Athlete or other Person to the effort to eliminate doping in sport. No more than three-quarters of the otherwise applicable period of Ineligibility may be suspended. If the otherwise applicable period of Ineligibility is a lifetime, the non-suspended period under this section must be no less than eight (8) years.
In plain English Armstrong will have to go full rodent and offer up people at the UCI and more, perhaps those linked to US Cycling. But should he help the anti-doping agencies or perhaps the FBI and Dept of Justice catch those further up the food chain, he’s not going to be racing again soon. Because he’s already accepted a life ban and because he did not appeal the verdict the rules suggest he’ll have to serve a minimum eight year ban.
It seems my interpretation of the WADA Code is the same as USADA’s Travis Tygart as a detailed Wall Street Journal piece recounts:
Mr. Tygart told Mr. Armstrong that he had already had his chance to come clean, and that, at best, if he gave full cooperation, the ban would be eight years.
This is only a sofa interview but Oprah reaches US households in a way that no subdomain of the USADA website can. The TV interview appears to mark the start of choreographed process aimed at redemption rather than a one-off appearance.
Whether this works remains to be seen. There’s talk of a $100 million lawsuit, a suspiciously round number but scary-big all the same especially as it’s not unique: newspapers, races and others want his money too. As much as Armstrong’s media performances can be stage-managed by lawyers, there’s plenty that can wrong because the cast of other actors is so big.
Reducing the life ban is possible but below eight years looks tough. But redemption comes in more ways that a licence to swim, cycle and run. Testifying against others one way to help clear up but it’s near impossible to reverse the damage done.
Surely the hardest part of the story is being a father? Armstrong had many Oedipal comparisons. Maybe you can fool an anti-doping test and delude fans who stand on the side of a mountain? But as a father now how do you tell your children that many of the things they see around them were acquired by breaking the rules, that you’re a cheat? Maybe that’s a question only Oprah can ask?