If he wants to say sorry now, where would he start?
An appearance by stripped Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong is scheduled to air next Thursday evening on Oprah Winfrey’s network. In what is being billed as a “no-holds-barred interview,” the disgraced cycling star is expected to discuss the “alleged doping scandal.”
But after years of attacks and vehement denials, and with lawsuits and the threat of perjury charges hanging over his head, can Mr. Armstrong dare admit he was lying all along?
It is unlikely that Ms. Winfrey will give Mr. Armstrong a prime-time platform to reiterate his old denials. Given a trial balloon about a confession floated last week in the New York Times, many are expecting some level of contrition. And while there are competing opinions on how Ms. Winfrey will approach the interview, her evisceration of lying author James Frey shows she can be tough when she chooses.
“The interview is scheduled to last 90 minutes,” noted a blogger writing at eurosport.com under the name Blazin’ Saddles. “It seems a long time, but if, as expected, he is coming clean about his years of doping, he'll need every minute of that hour and a half to apologize to the hundreds of people he has bullied.”
The stakes are very high and a half-apology on the lines of “everybody was doing it” is unlikely to satisfy many. The list of people left unhappy by the Armstrong saga is simply too long.
Cancer survivors looked at him as a source of inspiration, watching as he used his backstory to deflect questions about doping and believing his cynical invocation of “miracles” as the reason behind his record-breaking race victories.
His work for cancer awareness was his public relations saving grace for years. But after the United States Anti-Doping Agency investigation was made public he was dumped by his own foundation. He will need to re-establish ties with that constituency. And he may need to address the incendiary and always looming question of whether illegal drug use may have helped cause his cancer.
There are also the would-be whistleblowers who for years felt his wrath.
There was team assistant Emma O’Reilly who described doping and testified how, in return, she was labelled an alcoholic prostitute. There was Besty Andreu, the wife of former teammate Frankie Andreu, who was painted as a vindictive nut for describing a hospital room admission of drug use by Mr. Armstrong.
Former team-mates who pointed the finger were attacked as liars and fellow riders -- including Frenchman Christophe Bassons, who was hounded from cycling for daring to say publicly that the sport was still dirty at the top level -- were ostracized for telling the truth. And facing accusations of doping by three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond, Mr. Armstrong is alleged to have put pressure on Trek, which carried bicycles designed by Mr. LeMond, to shut him up.
“Will he apologize to all the people who wouldn’t lie for him? “ Ms. Andreu asked the New York Daily News earlier this week. “Will he compensate people for costing them jobs and businesses? How do you put a price on lost opportunities?”
Sponsors, including American taxpayers who funded the United States Postal Service team on which Mr. Armstrong rode for much of his career, may also be due for a mention. Although thrilled at the time to bask in his reflected glory, many dropped him in recent months, unhappy to be tainted and aware the exhaustive USADA report showed large amounts of the money had funded doping programs.
Money may in fact be the most complicated element of any possible apology.
Mr. Armstrong is being sued for performance bonuses awarded in return for winning several of his Tours, with the company that insured the bonuses arguing that he is no longer the official winner. An admission by Mr. Armstrong that he cheated would seem to concede the point. He is also being sued by a British newspaper hoping to recoup a settlement made after he went after them in court for mentioning a book that alleged he doped. And a whistleblower lawsuit filed by former team-mate Floyd Landis, alleging misuse of U.S. government funds, could have a penalty in the tens of millions.
The former cyclist could, in theory, also face charges for lying under oath. In sworn testimony he has insisted that he never used performance enhancing drugs and he must be keenly aware that former track star Marion Jones went to jail for perjury, not doping.
And there are the fans. Although cycling has long been plagued by doping, and no serious devotee had illusions about the sport being squeaky clean, it had a chance at the 1999 Tour de France.
Everybody was nervous, one year after the huge doping scandal in 1998 that involved police raids, arrests and a rider strike. French law treats doping as a criminal offence and numerous accounts later written about the 1999 Tour paint a picture of riders and team officials terrified of being caught. It was the so-called “Tour of redemption,” the chance to show that they had learned their lesson.
But not everyone got the memo. In his book The Secret Race, former Armstrong team-mate Tyler Hamilton described the elaborate subterfuges used to get EPO, the banned drug of choice, to the team’s riders. And analysis of 1999-era urine samples done years later, after an EPO test was developed, supports his claims.
The tests, which Mr. Armstrong has disputed, showed the drug in 40 per cent of his samples. Among the other riders tested, the drug was present in only 8.6 per cent of samples. The disparity feeds the criticism that Mr. Armstrong won his first Tour by riding dirty in an era that was trying to clean up, thereby showing the rest of the field that they would need to start doping again to keep up.
When Mr. Armstrong came out of retirement to race again in 2009, Irish journalist and long-time critic Paul Kimmage reportedly said that “our cancer has now returned.” The provocative remark seemed to reference Mr. Armstrong’s effect on doping practices in the sport and it earned the writer a harsh dressing-down during a press conference at the Tour of California. In a video gleefully passed around by Armstrong supporters, the cyclist accused the journalist of “not being worth the chair that you’re sitting on.”
Maybe that’s one more person due an apology.