Lance and Oprah part one; candid but not truthful

Lance and Oprah part one; candid but not truthful
Oprah Winfrey interviews Lance Armstrong, courtesy of Oprah.com

UPDATE: Commentary on Oprah interview part two and what's next for Lance Armstrong.

Like thousands of others, I sat glued to the television last night for part one of Oprah Winfrey’s interview of Lance Armstrong.

Before committing my commentary to print, I decided to get a good night's rest and avoid reading a single word written by anyone else.  When I woke this morning these words were ready to flow.

First, I have to hand it to Oprah – she came prepared!  Her knowledge of the full story was as comprehensive as any devout cycling fan that I have ever discussed this with.  She knew all the characters, the timeline, and the details of the USADA Reasoned Decision.  More importantly, there was no way she was going to let Lance get away without fully answering her questions.  Her questions were comprehensive and she was fully engaged in active listening, constantly pressing him to deliver as clear of an answer as he was willing to give.

Oprah succeeded in extracting candid answers from Lance Armstrong.  But were those answers completely honest and fully truthful?

I was impressed that Lance not only admitted to cheating, but accepted full blame for his decisions.  He didn’t attempt to play the victim card as I had predicted.  He was also extremely reluctant to name names or blow up the whole system in order to save face.  Of course, he still has time to do that during any official hearings with USADA, WADA, and UCI’s independent review council…

What many may find striking is that Lance didn’t appear to think twice about his decision to take performance enhancing drugs in the first place (although thus far, Oprah has yet to ask if he believes PED use caused his cancer).  By his own admission, he viewed PEDs in the same light as air in his bike tires and water in his water bottles.  He stated at the beginning of the interview that it was his opinion that the Tour de France could not be won by a rider who was not doping.

When pressed by Oprah, Lance admitted that he had no regrets about cheating when he crossed the finish line as the overall leader in seven consecutive TdFs.  He had no doubt that he would win and that the process of winning – the preparation, training, and tactics – was more rewarding than the actual accomplishment.  Except for maybe the adulation, fame, fortune, and privilege that naturally followed it, which he so nonchalantly took for granted...

Reflecting on what I witnessed myself, I would say that Lance Armstrong is a humbled man who is slowly moving through the stages of grief.  He’s made it past the shock and disbelief stage and is working on the denial part.  I don’t want to confuse the stage of denial with the act of willful denial he has been practicing throughout his career, either.  He appears to be just waking up to the fact that the reality he created for himself isn't actually real after all.  Letting go of his incorrect, ingrained thought processes is likely to be a lengthy process.

I don’t want that last statement to serve as an excuse for Lance’s unwillingness to be fully truthful during his interview.  But as someone who has gone through this process after a divorce and again after a heart attack - acknowledging facts, recognizing truth, and comprehending the full gravity of a situation does take time.  Only after having been called out fully for past actions can one begin to reassess the past clearly.

Now, as for the “not fully truthful part”, let’s start with the declaration that Lance competed in 2009 and 2010 as a fully clean rider…

USADA’s analysis of Lance’s biological passport seems to indicate otherwise.  In fact, it was levels indicative of EPO usage that served as Tygart’s rationale for bypassing the statute of limitations on Lance’s earlier drug use.  Did Lance categorically deny doping during his comeback to preserve his reputation as a competitive bike racer or is he not yet ready to confess it?  Is he holding on to his old thought process that there is no decisive proof and therefore he deserves the benefit of the doubt?  Only Lance knows for certain and for now, that’s his answer and he’s sticking to it.

Next up is his flat out refusal to answer Oprah’s question about Betsy Andreu and Lance’s alleged hospital confession.  While I waited until this morning to record my comments uninfluenced by Facebook, Twitter, Velonews, and all other forms of media, I did watch Anderson Cooper 360 immediately following the Oprah special last night.  Betsy Andreu was on Anderson’s panel along with Daniel Coyle, the author of Tyler Hamilton’s book, Bill Strickland of Bicycling Magazine and author of books on Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel, and Jeffery Toobin, CNN’s legal analyst.

The raw emotion Betsy exhibited after Lance refused to validate what she overheard in the hospital room back in 1996 spoke volumes about Armstrong’s truthfulness.  After calming down (and getting coaching in her earpiece from her legal team), she determined that Lance was still protecting certain people.

In the case of the overheard hospital admission, Stephanie McIlvain of Oakley was also purported to be in that room with Betsy and Frankie Andreu.  Stephanie did not back Betsy up during the SCA Promotions deposition.  Lance’s acknowledgement of what he said and what Betsy heard could indict McIlvain and open her and Oakley up to potential litigation.  Anyone with knowledge of the official Lance cancer story knows that Oakley was his most loyal sponsor during treatment.  He is likely protecting them.

One other “less than truthful” line of questioning involved Christian Vande Velde’s allegation of intimidation by Lance during his USADA deposition.  Oprah tried very hard to validate Christian’s insistence that Lance pressured him to dope.  Lance made it clear that he never gave any rider a direct order to take PEDs, but following his lead was merely implied as the means to remain on the team.

How important is this distinction to Oprah, the viewers, and Lance?  Oprah called it out as semantics.  Lance clarified it as a half-truth.  He claims that he may have been the team captain, leading by example, but he never directly told another rider what to do or not to do.  That doesn’t mean he didn’t communicate his wishes to the team’s management (which he was unofficially purported to be a part of) and instruct others to give the directive.  It is entirely plausible that Lance kept his verbal instructions limited to commentary and coaching on the race course.  But it would be naïve for anyone to think that he would tolerate a teammate – an integral component to his personal success – who was unwilling to follow the program to the letter.

Lastly, for me, there was the Tyler Hamilton (and Travis Tygart) allegation that Lance tested positive during the Tour of Switzerland during 2001.  His $150,000 donation in 2005 was claimed by many to be a payoff to UCI for making his failed doping control go away.  Lance denied the test failure.  He also denied the bribery claim.  While it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it may be too early to determine when duck hunting season begins...

After round one, I give Lance props for being candid, but I don’t labor under any delusion that he is being completely forthcoming and fully truthful.  He is definitely protecting the reputations (and legal ramifications) of others.  He is also holding onto cards to play when he does finally talk to USADA, WADA, and UCI.  As a cycling fan, I am neither surprised nor disappointed.

There is no doubt that Lance has been coached from both a legal and public relations perspective.  He knows what he can give up and he knows what he can’t.  He’s under the spotlight and aside from some body language tells – looking down, covering his mouth, smiling inappropriately – he still is managing to control the narrative, despite his admission to the contrary.

I anxiously await the opportunity to watch part two tonight and share my commentary again tomorrow.  In the meantime, it's going to be tough not to read the reactions of others...

Full Lance Armstrong Series:  Public Perception and the Cost of Keeping Cycling CleanLance Armstrong Seeks Day in Actual Court,  Lance Armstrong Seeks GOP Congressman's Assistance,  Defending Cycling: Lance Armstrong Edition,  Lance Armstrong Will Not Fight Sanctions,  Will Amnesty Save Lance Armstrong,  Entire Era of US Cycling Erased from History,  Time for Lance Armstrong to Come Clean,  Lance Armstrong, Mitt Romney, and the Piftalls of Trusting a Winner,  Lance Armstrong Goes Down, Greg LeMond Steps Up,  Greg LeMond Wants to Take Over International Cycling,  Last Chance for Lance Armstrong,  Will It Really Matter If Lance Armstrong ConfessesLance Armstrong to Confess All to OprahLance Armstrong's path to redemption starts with Oprah, It's not about the bike - it's only about Lance Armstrong

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