We all knew this day might come.
Ever since Lance Armstrong got named as the subject of a federal criminal investigatio, the possibility has lain tantalizingly in the distance that not only might Armstrong himself someday confess, but that his mea culpa would take place where all great secular Sacraments of Penance do: Oprah's couch.
It's such a cliche that the talented duo at NY Velocity envisioned a Lance-couch appearance in As the Toto Turns. Back in May of 2011, that is (Oprah first appeared in Toto in 2008).
So when Oprah's PR machine churned out a press release Tuesday night that Armstrong would do his first interview since being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, it immediately was the talk of the cycling world. Technically, the interview will be/was shot at Armstrong's Austin home, but metaphorically, it's still Oprah's couch.
"Oprah Winfrey will speak exclusively with Lance Armstrong in his first no-holds-barred interview," read the first line of the press release, before going on to detail that subjects would include "the alleged doping scandal, years of accusations of cheating and charges of lying about using.drugs throughout his storied cycling career."
The use of "alleged doping scandal" should give you pause. While Armstrong was never charged in the criminal case, he has been banned for life in endurance sports and stripped of his titles in a legal proceeding built on 1,000 pages of evidence that yielded a verdict recognized by every relevant governing body in Olympic sports. We can drop the "alleged" bit now.
Also, this is not Oprah's first disgraced-athlete rodeo. In 2009, she interviewed Marion Jones after her release from prison. Jones tearfully admitted in 2007 that she'd (unknowingly) used drugs. She repeated the claim to Oprah, who only lightly challenged it. If that's any kind of blueprint for how Armstrong's interview will go, that's troubling.
Mainstream journalists - that is, those who don't cover cycling or even sports exclusively - have done some fantastic work on the Armstrong story.
But, let's be clear, Oprah is not a journalist. She's a talk-show host, and Armstrong picked her not only because she can deliver a big audience, but because that audience is composed mostly of people who themselves aren't up on the finer details of the sport - people who Lance may think will accept a glossy, non-specific, everyone-was-doing-it confession and say, "He's a nice boy; he just made a mistake."
And, sometimes even good mainstream journalists miss or gloss over crucial details. CBS is promoting Scott Pelley's latest report (airs tonight on Showtime's 60 Minutes Sports) on the Armstrong case with clips of an interview with USADA's Travis Tygart. We learn that Armstrong offered a large, unsolicited donation to USADA, which is a significant piece of new information. But there was also some sloppy reporting. In one exchange, Pelley asks Tygart about the infamous 1999 samples, saying, "When you re-tested them in 2005, they were positive?"
It's a detail, to be sure. But details are important; they're where you find the truth. (A truth that went overlooked in the debate over those samples is that in at least two samples, 100 percent of the protein isoforms in Armstrong's electrophoresis gels were consistent with synthetic EPO. That means that he had taken so much EPO for long enough that his body basically shut down its own production; it didn't even register on the test.)
My point isn't to rehash that incident. It's to say that when you question a guy like Armstrong over something as crucial as this subject, specificity matters a lot, because one might reasonably ask of Armstrong, "Re-tests of your 1999 samples showed virtually no natural EPO in your system. And 1999 was also the year after the Festina scandal, when cycling was supposed to be trying to start fresh. So if you only doped because everyone else was, why were you doping so aggressively at a time when the sport was trying to break free of that practice?"
Some might wave off that question as a detail important only to the forum fanboys. But it's not a doping question; it's a character question. If you say you didn't want to do this, why did you do so much of it?
In her interview, Jones hid behind evasive answers; Oprah could have pinned her on specifics had she known what to ask or cared. Instead, she settled for a quiet skepticism that offered little clarity for the viewer, and gave Jones just enough cover to claim she'd told the truth.
Oprah can be a hard interviewer; she took apart author James Frey over the revelation that his memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," had actually been more fiction than autobiography. But was Oprah's indignation toward Frey was less a result of the fabrication itself and based more on Oprah's anger that she had glowingly praised the tome as one of her book club selections? (Oprah cited that motivation when she later apologized to Frey for being so hard on him.)
Armstrong owes no such debt to Oprah. She's never really been involved with him or his foundation, never invested much of her considerable social capital in his life or deeds. For her, the crowning achievement here is the simple "get": that she will have the privilege, if you can call it that, of being the first media personality to interview Lance since his world collapsed.
But if there are risks for Oprah in the interview, there are risks orders of magnitude greater for Armstrong. Those risks, principally, revolve around what he might say.
I, and others, have said repeatedly that a full, open and honest confession is the only way forward for Armstrong. But I don't expect that to happen and neither do many other people.
When I interviewed author Dan Coyle about his work co-writing Tyler Hamilton's autobiography "The Secret Race," Coyle said that the process at times felt like an excavation. "The truth here is so immense that you can't expect the transformation to be like flipping a switch," he told me.
The first time someone tells the truth, they tell a little of it. The next time, more is revealed. The layers get peeled back with each effort until, finally, the complete truth is laid bare. For Hamilton, that process took many months. Armstrong has just begun.
How could he possibly progress from total denial to total truth by next Thursday?
But if it's understandable that it would take Armstrong some time to get to full disclosure, he doesn't have the luxury of that time. When Juliet Macur first reported the possibility of a confession, in last Friday's NY Times, public reaction was skeptical, at best.
My best guess is that our collective willingness to listen to Armstrong depends greatly on what he will say. He has long proved himself to be a narcissistic manipulator, and people are tired of lies, half-truths, and naked justifications for bad behavior.
If Armstrong takes a deep breath and tells everything - how deeply he cheated, how he got away with it, and why he felt it necessary not only to take drugs but to viciously attack anyone who challenged him or questioned his achievements - then perhaps we'll listen.
But if we get one of these variations: "Everyone was doing it; you had to dope just to keep up;" or "I never really was a part of what the USADA report talks about with intimidating riders;" or "I didn't want to live a lie, but once I won and saw how much it meant to cancer survivors, I was trapped;" then people will (rightfully) tune him out.
If - worse - Armstrong tries to claim the mantle of reformer and offers that same highly qualified, narrowly guardrailed admission because "the sport needs to move forward," and tries to position himself as a noble savior of cycling (without a complete confession), then I think the reaction will be even more negative.
And he'll never have another chance again.
That's the key for Armstrong. Confessing on Oprah is not like a stage race; you get one shot at this and if you screw it up you don't get to start again the next day and try to attack to gain back time.
Honestly, I don't know if Armstrong sees that or understands it. He is a ferociously intelligent person. But one of his signal weaknesses-evidenced by a series of terrible decisions-is that he tends to surround himself with people who only reinforce what he wants to hear.
Many a person who challenged Armstrong found himself kicked out of the inner circle. When Doug Brinkley chronicled the deliberations behind Armstrong's 2009 return to the sport for Vanity Fair, he recounted a conversation where he broached the question of whether Armstrong could win the Tour again.
"What if you lose?" Brinkley inquired, at dinner with Armstrong and the star chamber of advisers (Bill Stapleton, Bart Knaggs, Mark McKinnon, and Doug Ulman) Armstrong had amassed. He writes:
A chorus of rattlesnake hisses came my way. It was clear that I wasn't of their ilk. My naked wrists were noticeable. "I can't believe you asked that," said a disappointed Stapleton, deflated. "We don't go there."
Turns out, Stapleton and Armstrong should have "gone there." Armstrong not only didn't win the Tour, he lost-for the first time ever-a battle of wills within his own team as Alberto Contador coolly overcame the Texan's mind games to win the 2009 edition.
His vaunted anti-doping program with Don Catlin was DOA, and he got in dustups with the media and anti-doping testers (recall ShowerGate). And finally, his return re-ignited the long debate about whether he'd doped to win the Tour seven times.
Armstrong is in the position he's in now for a lot of reasons, but none moreso than that his return pissed off Floyd Landis, who saw his old boss and mentor, and all his old teammates and peloton buddies, all of whom had doped, all riding merrily along and making good money and enjoying the attention and adulation while he, Floyd Landis, was a social leper for having the misfortune to be the only one who actually got caught.
So The Comeback, yeah, that was a bad idea. Another bad idea: electing not to contest the USADA arbitration while at the same time painting the organization as a vindictive kangaroo court bent on his destruction. The combination essentially left USADA with no choice but to publicly release the mountain of evidence in the case to show that, in fact, it did have proof and that it wasn't engaged in a witch hunt.
Could the Oprah appearance just be the latest in a series of spectacular tactical blunders by Armstrong?
It depends on what he says. And what he says depends on how he reads the situation.
Armstrong was always great at reading a race, knowing where to go and when to be there. And he's always been adept at managing the media to his advantage. But he's not so great sometimes at making decisions that are really good for him.
So if he truly believes that he can sit down in his rumpus room under his seven framed yellow jerseys or, more subtly but no less ironically, under the backdrop of his Ed Ruscha painting "Safe and Effective Medication," and offer some mush-mouthed confession; invoke moral relativism (everyone did it and he was still the best); and claim that he's doing this for the good of the sport, without actually admitting the extent of his actions, I'm guessing most of America will turn off the show and tell Lance Armstrong to go f--- himself.
And after that last kiss-off, the only sound Armstrong will hear will be something that is more terrible to him than our anger: our silence.