Lance Armstrong meets Oprah: let the brand management begin

And so the day of reckoning arrives, and a long volume in the story of Lance Armstrong, one-time hero with the comic-book name, reaches its end. Today comes the airing of Lance’s meeting with Oprah Winfrey, Mother Confessor of the U.S.A. He has come to perform his act of contrition, or Part 1 of that act, anyway—Part 2 will be broadcast tomorrow evening. 

Will he tell all? (No: he can’t afford the legal bills.) Will he cry? (Perhaps, if the incentives are right.) 

Back in the late ’90s and early ’00s, it looked like one of those stories that the world serves up every now and then as an antidote to droning cynicism: man seemingly outwills testicular, lung, and brain cancer, then focuses that furnace-tempered will on the most gruelling sporting event ever created, the Tour de France. Man doesn’t just compete but wins. And man doesn’t just win but wins repeatedly. 

It was astonishing and filled with its own hope-inspiring logic, even for the casual fan of the Tour that I’d been. We're talking about the early years here, before rival after rival of Armstrong’s—Ullrich, Basso, Vinokourov—were busted as drug cheats, and the plausibility of a dope-free Lance having dominated a field of committed dopers began to curdle. Back then, before everything turned, the Armstrong tale seemed impossible to hype, because it was already so great. It seemed to unfold beyond the science of image management that had been perfected in the dot-com-drunk, end-of-history ’90s. 

I remained a believer even when the doubts began to gnaw—even when Lance himself began chucking around bizarre explanations for his rise from average racer to superman: the idea that his body had “grown back” into a different, more victory-prone shape after his cancer ordeal, or that he had crushed opponents on the wall-like slopes of the Alps by making adjustments to his pedal cadence. But once that faith began to unravel, it really unravelled. 

And now the drone of cynicism returns. Lance could have staged his confession in any number of ways: written statement or web video or press conference. Instead, he’s playing the Oprah card, which almost certainly has a sizeable appearance fee in its favour. Now we have a blue-chip brand and a collapsed one engaged in a transaction, with Oprah having carefully boosted her prospects of big ratings with interviews earlier this week declaring how “mesmerized and riveted” she and her staff were with Lance’s showing before the cameras. Hype has regained its rightful place.

You’ll have to look elsewhere for heroes. They are there among the wreckage: journalist David Walsh, former team masseuse Emma O’Reilly, and former friend Betsy Andreu, each of whom blew the whistle on Armstrong years ago and suffered waves of invective and litigation, when Lance was still a Great Man with a Great Man’s resources.

In that now-vindicated group is Greg LeMond, the brilliant three-time Tour champion who began as a fan of Armstrong’s and ended up as one of his loudest and best-informed accusers. Maybe LeMond’s legacy is a good place to start the job of rebuilding a sport that Armstrong has brought to a new low. LeMond certainly provided some the most dramatic story lines and moments in Tour history, among them his knife-edge win in 1989 (below). And there’s lots more footage of him on Youtube, replete with crazy ’80s graphics and music. If you're cycling fan, it’ll make for better and happier viewing than tonight’s pantomime.

 

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