Lance Armstrong looked uncomfortable during his confessional conversation with Oprah Winfrey. He was twitchy. He yanked on his ankle, retracted his lips, scratched his graying head.
He was not on the bike, where winning became a foregone conclusion, therefore he was not in control.
Armstrong loves the camera. He played a role so convincingly for 15 years that even he believed the heroic character he created. But he’s still learning how to act contrite and empathetic.
He may never master it.
He tried to say he was sorry during the two-part televised interview. Sorry for doping, for deceiving, for building an image and an empire on lies and cruelty.
He took small steps on his self-proclaimed “path to redemption.”
But Armstrong has so many miles to go to retrace seven Tour de France triumphs that never would have happened if he hadn’t cheated. His idolization as Livestrong founder would not have happened if he hadn’t cheated. He might not have suffered from cancer if he hadn’t cheated. Armstrong would probably be in Dallas, competing in triathlons in the 40-45 age group, instead of pondering his next move in a Hawaiian villa, if he hadn’t cheated.
“Or in jail someplace, because deep down, he’s a criminal who defrauded people, a sociopath who has no feelings for people,” said Mike Anderson, Armstrong’s former mechanic and personal assistant, one of those sued and trampled by Armstrong, one of many who is not ready to forgive no matter what Armstrong admitted to Oprah.
The central question remains: How do we know that the famous Lance Armstrong, who would not exist without lies, is not lying now?
The burden for him is heavy. He not only lied but fortified his lies by vigorously accusing those telling the truth of being liars.
“This is too late,” Armstrong said. “It’s too late for probably most people, and that’s my fault.
“The ruthless desire to win served me well on the bike and during the disease. But the level it went to is a flaw.”
Armstrong, 41, made an effort in what his ex-teammate and admitted doper Tyler Hamilton acknowledged is a “long and painful process” of self-examination.
But there were revealing cracks in the orchestrated celebrity confession — which was managed by Armstrong’s team of lawyers and PR spinners and of great financial benefit to Winfrey’s struggling OWN network.
Armstrong was as cold as ever when he talked about Emma O’Reilly, the team masseuse he sued after she told how he negated a positive test by having a doctor backdate a prescription for corticosteroids and lie about saddle sores.
“She’s one of those people I have to apologize to, one of those people who got run over, bullied,” he said. When asked about suing her, he said, “To be honest Oprah, we sued so many people. I’m sure we did.”
Armstrong often referred to himself in the third person, said “those people” and “we” sued. Remorse, for a guy who has relied on anger, is an emotion hard to reach.
He would not address the 1996 hospital room conversation during which he told doctors treating him for testicular cancer that he had used a variety of PEDs, according to Betsy and Frankie Andreu. The Andreus, who have been vilified by Armstrong, were hoping he would finally admit to that conversation, but he did not.
“Betsy, I called you crazy, I called you a b----, but I never called you fat,” Armstrong said in an insensitive attempt at levity that threw Winfrey for a loop.
Armstrong also hemmed and hawed when asked about testimony from his teammates that he pressured them to use drugs and implied they would be fired if they didn’t “get serious” and follow Dr. Michele Ferrari’s doping regimen.
He said his team’s doping program was not quite the “most sophisticated, professionalized and successful” in sports history as the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency declared because East Germany’s was better. You could almost hear his crisis communications experts groaning on that one.
Armstrong said he used to look up the definition of cheating and persuade himself that he was competing on a level playing field because everyone else was cheating, even though he had access to superior doping because of his success and that not all athletes react equally to doping.
He said he got swept up in his “perfect myth,” and copped to “that defiance, that attitude, that arrogance … how can you not watch that clip and say, ‘Look at that arrogant [jerk].’ ”
Oprah’s specials were unrevelatory in that we are all afflicted with Lance fatigue but fascinating in that in between his “I’m a jerk who deserves this” apologies he was still rationalizing and hedging, claiming, for example, he only took small amounts of EPO and was clean in his 2009 comeback.
“I was a bully in the sense that I tried to control the narrative,” Armstrong said in one of his honest insights.
It was not a full confession but no one expects miracles from Armstrong anymore.
Perhaps he will find sincerity on his new, lonely road. For a man who has relied on synthetic enhancement for so long, natural feelings don’t come easy.