Monday had an odd air about it, from the predawn hour when TV crews began staking out Lance Armstrong's Austin, Texas home in hopes of catching him or Oprah before their much-publicized interview.
The media attention was so intense that Armstrong slipped out over the fence to go for an AM run, hat pulled low over his eyes. Whether via regular media or the social variety, reports rolled in all day with a kind of frenzied Super Bowl-style character.
Armstrong had apologized to the staff at Livestrong, reported the AP, also the source of the running anecdote. Then: the cyclist hadn't actually mentioned using drugs in his apology, and a foundation spokeswoman said only that Armstrong had apologized to employees, "for all the stress they've endured because of him."
Armstrong then decamped for a downtown Austin hotel for a reported summit with his legal team. But that seemed odd, since others said his decision to go on Oprah to begin with had been made without his legal team, perhaps even against their advice.
Media outlets breathlessly reported that Armstrong had secured the services of Mark Fabiani, the PR consultant known as the "Master of Disaster." But Fabiani had actually been in Armstrong's retinue since 2010. With such confusion amid the flurry of reportage - much of it based on unnamed sources "with knowledge of the situation"-how were we to know what, if any of it, was actually true?
Then, a venue change! Due to the attention at Armstrong's house, the hotel was now the site of the interview. Armstrong later emerged with a coterie of supporters and advisers, while Oprah tweeted that she'd wrapped a two and a half hour interview, raising the question of what would be cut for the 90-minute broadcast. (Ultimately, Oprah decided to expand the show into a two-night extravaganza/ordeal.)
The focus was so intense that, even among cycling fans, two other notable stories were lost: USA Cycling announced its strongest team in memory for the Cyclocross World Championships, held in just under two weeks on American soil, where said team could bring home multiple medals.
And 2008 Olympic road race champion Nicole Cooke retired, although that's not quite the right word. In leaving the sport while at its competitive summit, she cited the abysmal climate of women's racing due, in part, to mismanagement, male chauvinism, and the toll of doping scandals - mostly on the men's side of the sport.
If three percent of the energy spent on Armstrong were directed to women's cycling, it would be far healthier than the train wreck Cooke leaves behind, and maybe she wouldn't be leaving just yet. (And yes, I see the hypocrisy in pointing that out in just two paragraphs of a piece on Armstrong. I do draw some hope from the fact that Cooke's statement was read widely enough that it crashed her website.)
Separately, news emerged that Armstrong was approaching a number of people he'd clashed with in the past in an attempt for reconciliation. Not everyone who Armstrong has attacked received such an overture, and no one Bicycling contacted who had would speak on the record, but what is clear is that news of Armstrong's contacts stirred strong emotions in all of them.
To date, almost all of the attention (including my own) on what an Armstrong confession would mean has focused on the effects on Armstrong. Would he expose himself to civil liability? Would the Justice Department re-open its case? Would Floyd Landis' lawsuit gain new traction and government backing?
I've said before (maybe only privately, but I think I've written it somewhere) that Armstrong is the story that never really dies. He certainly is on the watch list for the 2013 "How can we miss you if you won't go away?" award. But for most of us, the Armstrong story is something to be considered at remove.
What if you're Tyler Hamilton, barely 20 months removed from the evening Armstrong confronted him in an Aspen restaurant, threatening to make his life a living hell? Landis, who Armstrong variously characterized as bitter, mentally disturbed, and a drunk? Former assistant Mike Anderson, his dreams of an Austin bike shop vaporized in 2006, eventually departed for New Zealand, in part to put as much space as possible between himself and Armstrong.
What of Betsy Andreu, who for eight years has been referred to as obsessed, a bitter, fat bitch for having the integrity to testify truthfully under oath; her husband Frankie quietly sidelined from the upper reaches of the sport?
Or former soigneur Emma O'Reilly, slurred by Armstrong in 2004 as someone who was party to "issues within the team, within the other riders, that were inappropriate," as he said at a press conference, and driven nearly to bankruptcy? And David Walsh, the Original Recipe troll ever since 2001, attacked personally and professionally, done injustice by England's awful libel laws?
That is to say nothing of Christophe Bassons or Filippo Simeoni; of Greg and Kathy LeMond; of Prentice Steffen, to name five others. All of them felt the burning intensity of Armstrong's fury. Most had unpleasant, costly dealings with his attorneys. While they attempted to create new lives, none of them were ever really free of Armstrong's shadow.
Not all of them were contacted. But when a man who has tormented you for years - sometimes making a pattern of it and seeming to relish it - emerges suddenly from the very nadir of his own demise to apologize, what are you supposed to say?
Forgiveness is a uniquely human act, perhaps the very thing that makes us human. It is also an act of grace. To be able to acknowledge harm and then let go any thought of redress, to absolve, is one of the greatest gifts people can give one another.
Armstrong has not yet shown he's worthy of that. His apology tour may be simply the latest in a series of shamelessly self-serving acts. The track record, certainly, would argue that Armstrong's contrition is primarily aimed at rehabilitating his reputation; to inure him against legal retribution; and maybe to let him enter a few triathlons here and there.
But when the credits roll on Oprah and he's made a few other appearances to self-flagellate in public, what then? How long does Penitent Lance last? For all his vaunted focus and willpower, Armstrong made it barely three months as a social pariah before crumbling.
Last summer, when offered by USADA the chance to talk freely and make a deal that would have saved a number of his Tour wins and yielded a shorter ban, Armstrong refused. When, according to the Wall Street Journal, he later met with the agency after his ban to try to re-cut the deal and didn't get his way, he angrily told off his counterparts and left with an expletive.
That second meeting was about a month ago. This is the man we're supposed to now believe is contrite? No, strike that; it's not about us. Should the people he attacked for years, and to whom he now wants to apologize, believe he is contrite, a word Oprah stopped short of using in characterizing his appearance on her show? To borrow from Dan Coyle, does Armstrong really believe he can "win" his confession?
Armstrong once expressed exasperation at the charges leveled at him, lamenting that he could not prove a negative. Even just a couple of years into his run of Tour wins, the old "I've never tested positive" line had worn thin. He'd moved on to "I've never taken performance-enhancing drugs." And he was upset that he couldn't prove it-that, since beating the tests didn't mean much, he had no way to really prove to people that he didn't dope.
At the time, I found his situation sympathetic. Although I had my doubts, they were then only that. If he was clean, how terrible to be suspected and accused and not be able to prove those accusations were wrong?
Funny how it all comes back around. Armstrong desperately wanted us to believe something he couldn't prove. Now he wants something he can't earn. He can earn back trust, although that will come only after long years of work.
But forgiveness? I think forgiveness is a little like faith; if you had proof, you wouldn't need faith. Forgiveness isn't something that can be earned, only given unconditionally.
Armstrong wants to start over, and the only people with the power to grant that are the ones he spent so much time and enmity and treasure trying to crush. But long before they became outcasts and enemies from his life, they were close friends and confidants, in some cases dating back to his earliest days as a cyclist.
Armstrong used to beg Betsy - then the girlfriend of his Como roommate Frankie - to make risotto, his favorite dish of hers; Anderson was so close to him that Kristin, Armstrong's ex-wife, called him husband number two. One of the most memorable stories from the early part of Armstrong's career was "The Neophyte's Tale," a glowing profile of Armstrong that comprised the first chapter of "Inside the Tour de France," a 1994 book by a sportswriter for the Irish Sunday Independent named David Walsh.
Again, not all of these people were contacted. But for those that were, reflect on their long and complicated histories with Armstrong and it's no surprise that they have strong and complex emotions. And now, with at least some of them, he's asking them to give up power over one of the last things they have left in their dealings with him.
Forgive. Don't forgive. What would you do?