Reflections on Lance Armstrong's Confession

Writers spilled a lot of ink over the past few days about Lance Armstrong in the wake of his confession to Oprah Winfrey. And more ink will doubtless continue to flow in the weeks, months and years to come.

Lance Armstrong
As it turns out, it really wasn’t about the bike.

This past weekend, I watched Lance Armstrong’s confession with interest for two reasons. First, as a public speaker, I was curious to see how Armstrong would present himself. After more than a decade of vehement denials (and worse) concerning allegations of doping, this admission was monumental and would be scrutinized by millions. How would he handle it? Second, as an avid cyclist who has followed the Tour de France closely for almost 25 years, including seeing it live here in Europe on numerous occasions, I have followed Armstrong’s story from the beginning.

Confessions of a Public Biker

By most of the accounts that I have read, Armstrong’s confession has not been well received. People have called it callous, cold, calculated and worse. He has also received considerable criticism for choosing to confess on Oprah instead of before, say, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) or even a panel of haredened sports journalists who have been following the story for years. (I suspect that he will get his chance before WADA and/or USADA before too long.)

His confession was underwhelming. For starters, it came very late in the day, long after the writing was on the wall. It was less of a confession and more a capitulation before the mountain of incontrovertible evidence against him.

More fundamentally for me, however, was the fact that there was too little remorse, too little contrition for the disappointment he has become for millions of people, and for the significant harm that he caused others. This is not just a story about doping and a coverup; it is also about the vicious and systematic way in which Armstrong and his team of legal and public relations hounds went after innocent people with threats, lawsuits and psychological intimidation. Lives were completely disrupted and, in some ways, ruined.

Yet, at times Lance Armstrong almost seemed to try to make light of the moment, either by laughing or smiling or even joking. For example, his attempt at light-heartedness when saying that he called Betsy Andreu a “crazy bitch” but he never called her “fat”! To see how hurt Andreu was, watch this excerpt from her CNN interview with Anderson Cooper.

Another example. When asked about what he did to Emma O’Reilly, a former masseuse for this team, this was how Armstrong responded:

Oprah Winfrey: What about the story Emma O’Reilly tells about the cortisone and you having the cortisone backdated. Is that true?

Lance Armstrong: “That is true.”

OW: What do you want to say about Emma O’Reilly?

LA: “Hey, she’s one of these people that I have to apologize to. She’s one of these people that got run over, that got bullied.”

OW: You sued her?

LA: “To be honest, Oprah, we sued so many people I don’t even [know]. I’m sure we did.”

There’s a big difference between “she got run over, she got bullied” and “I ran over her, I bullied her”. The way Armstrong said it depersonalized the matter; the way he should have said it would have been a direct acceptance of responsibility. And are we really to believe that he couldn’t remember whether he had sued her?

There are plenty of other examples from the interview and you can read about them elsewhere. For me, Lance Armstrong only truly showed his vulnerability and his regret for his actions when describing the toll that they have taken on his mother and, especially, how he teared when describing his admission to his 13-year old son. That is the kind of remorse that he should have shown throughout the interview.

I would tell Lance Armstrong to forget the jokes, forget the smugness. And forget the arguments about the unfairness of a lifetime ban from competition. There will be a time for you to make your case on that point, but that time is not now.

I cannot imagine must have been going through Armstrong’s mind in the minutes before the interview with Oprah began. The pressure must have been incredible. And I have no doubt that he received a significant amount of (legal) coaching in terms of what he could and couldn’t say. But if he hoped to win in the court of public opinion, he hasn’t.

On a personal note

I love cycling.

I have spent a lot time in the saddle and have put tens of thousands of kilometres into my legs over the years. Living just outside Geneva, Switzerland, I have a cycler’s paradise with an almost limitless selection of flat, hilly and mountainous terrain in a stunningly beautiful setting. I ride a Trek 5900, one of the best racing bikes ever made. (And, yes, Trek was the bicycle of choice for the teams on which Armstrong rode.)

Lance Armstrong
A lot of people feel like saps in light of his confession.

I have followed the Tour de France and the other great bike races for years. My wife Julie and I got engaged in France in 1991 and spent three days in the French town of Alençon cheering on riders like Greg LeMond, Steve Bauer and Sean Kelly. When my daughters were younger, we would pack food, drink and chairs and go watch the Tour when it came close to our home. I have cycle up most of the great Alpine climbs of the Tour, including the Galibier, the Madeleine, the Croix-de-Fer and the mythical Alpe d’Huez. I have books, videos and magazines about cycling at home. It’s a great sport.

And when Armstrong made his remarkable comeback from cancer, I believed in him. Like millions around the world, I found his story inspirational. I read his book, It’s Not About the Bike. And for most of his Tour victories, I cheered him on.

Around the time Lance Armstrong won his fifth Tour, I had read enough articles and reports that I began to have my doubts. During his sixth and seventh victories, I felt sure that he had doped. When, in 2007, I read David Walsh’s excellent book, From Lance to Landis, any lingering doubts evaporated. So for me, the Oprah confession was really the sad dénouement to a story that had ended long ago.

The quality of mercy is not strained

So, should we forgive Lance Armstrong? That is the big question on a lot of people’s minds. While some (disappointed) supporters are standing by him, from what I have read, it seems that most people are not in a forgiving mood. Even Armstrong himself acknowledged, “[T]his is too late. It’s too late for probably most people, and that’s my fault.”

Perhaps. But we start down a slippery slope when, with a wave of our hand, we write someone off as forever being unworthy of forgiveness.  And people have forgiven others for much more serious transgressions. South Africa, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu chose truth and reconciliation when retribution would have been much easier. Or consider this incredible story of the man who forgave and befriended the man who killed his brother during the genocide that took place in Rwanda. Can we really do less?

Of course, this does not mean that Armstrong is to be absolved based on his interview with Oprah. Far from it. That interview was only a first, small, step. It will take much more. It will take sincere and personal apologies to those people whom he harmed and the payment of millions of dollars in restitution. He will have to cooperate fully with the appropriate legal and sports authorities to provide names, dates and details in an effort to aid cycling in its seemingly endless battle. It will take years.

But if Lance Armstrong is willing to make a sincere effort to atone for his wrongs, even if such atonement includes never competing in a sanctioned event again, even if it means significant financial penalties, even if it means possible jail time for fraud or perjury, then I would be willing to forgive.

A long, arduous climb lies ahead of Lance Armstrong. Perhaps the most difficult climb of his life. Certainly harder than his climbs up the Col du Tourmalet or Mont Ventoux or Alpe d’Huez. If he is sincere, he can reach the summit. We should wish him well on his journey.

First photo courtesy of mnorri / Flickr
Second photo courtesy of Tom Raftery / Flickr

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  1. Well said John. As an avid cyclist, I too echo your journey in cycling, following LA and this long developed story. The OW interview I took more as a study of presentation and speaking, being an avid Toastmaster and speaker. In cross examination with Tyler Hamilton, I already saw a discrepency in what LA said. Tyler I respect highly as a cyclists and also followed his story. I still wear the yellow band, as there are 100’s if not 1000’s of people & volunteers who have help build up LiveStrong in the fight against cancer. I too lost 3 family members to cancer. I hope they have distanced LiveStrong long enough and fast enough so atleast that organization can continue to do what it has already accomplished. But as I continue to watch pro-cycling this week, the UCI sanctioned “Santos Tour Down Under” in Australia, I realize we cyclists have to help carry the sport forward with clean, ethical and honest cyclists. It’s a great sport 😉 Thanks for a very good summation.

      1. Likewise. I ride a Trek Madone that is very comfortable. Road Cycle Oregon 2 years ago for the entire week. Plan to Ride CO again this Sept. Online registrations open in about 1+ weeks. 2200 spots fill within hours …

        1. Which version of the Madone do you ride? I almost bought the very first version when it came out, but the reviews were not great. As luck would have it, the bike shop had one 5900 frame in my size left so I went with that given that I had not read a bad review. And I have been very happy with it.

          1. I believe it was the 2nd or 3rd year it was out. Bought in 2006. The stock bontrager wheels it came with are crap. 2 years ago on Cycle Oregon, I noticed a wobble on the rear wheel. Went to the bike mechanic to get trued. He showed me that EVERY spoke hole on the cassette side had vertical cracks. We climb alot here so alot of torque on that wheel. Just missed the 5 year warranrty from Trek. My bike shop here just gave me another one identical to keep me happy. Despite not being happy, its better than nothing. Noticed that Trek now went back to a full spoke compliment on all the new Treks I saw at CO 2 years ago. Makes sense. Hype & marketing junk – wheels with fewer spokes. No pro making 1+ million a year, going downhill at 80+ km/hr wants 2 wheels under him with a low spoke count ;(

          2. I got lucky with my Bontragers. I wasn’t thrilled with them, but they have held up well under relentless climbing. The Col de la Faucille, an 11.5 km Cat. 2 climb to 1,350 metres, is only 10 km from my home and is my main training climb. (By the way, I was there when the Tour went over the Col de la Faucille on that fateful stage in the 2004 Tour when Armstrong rode out to harangue Filippo Simeoni and pull him back. A move that I thought (and still think) was incredibly arrogant at the time and that seems even more so today.)

          3. Yes, USADA mentioned that specific incident in their 1000 page report, even having a video of the “seal your lips” jesture by you know who that was caught. Bad mistake. I just shake my head.
            Envy you living so close to the best cycling in the world 😉 That’s Great ! Looking for other wheels for this year. $$$$ ggrrrrr…..

  2. Sitting here in southern Germany besides my trusted Trek 5200, thanks for your personal view. And how small the world is, I remember having been out to Alencon in 1991 to watch the individual time trials. And also I have experienced most Tour de France mountains including the Tourmalet riding my bicycle, often with baggage. All these confessions come some 5 years too late, but eventually thanks to the Internet the grim truth of pro bicycle riding filters through. Mr Armstrong’s German adversary of the time keeps very quiet these days.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Bernhard. It is a small world indeed! The great thing about the TT in Alençon was the atmosphere. It was one big party. My wife (then my fiancée) and I would watch from a certain venue and then move along throughout the day to see the race from different perspectives and mingle with others. Who knows? We might have even passed each other on the street? I envy you having done the Tourmalet. It is on my list of climbs to do! And yes, Jan Ullrich does seem somewhat conspicuous by his silence, though that is hardly surprising!
      All the best,

  3. I reflected on Tiger Woods as I saw the video of Lance Armstrong “apologizing”. It struck me that Tiger is still just a shell of the big man that he was before his infidelity incident. In the case of Tiger, his cheating was not in his sport – it was in another part of his life. Tiger is a young man, away from home for 200 days a year. He has never cheated on a golf course. He is redeeming himself, and working to recover the relationship with his wife and children.
    Lance is a cheater of a different order of magnitude. His cheating was directly in the sport which made him famous. His hypocrisy of attacking and destroying others lasted for 2 decades. Lance is an arrogant cheater to the core of his being. His “admission” of cheating was not a personal admission – it was a stage managed PR operation under the control of his lawyers and image advisors. He has no remorse. He doesn’t believe he cheated. Dante reserved a special 9th level of Hell for the hypocrites.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Conor. I agree with you that two things set Armstrong apart from Woods: the cheating went to the heart of his sporting accomplishments; and the vehemence with which he attacked others whom he knew to be blameless. His first attempt at a “confession” was not successful. I hope that he does better in the future. Like I said, the road to redemption will be long and painful for him, but if he is able to see it through to the end, it will be a comeback every bit as spectacular as his comeback against cancer. Time will tell.

    2. Hi Conor. Yes – totally agree. Tiger’s episode. These 2 (Tiger’s & LA’s) are NOT to be confused. Totally different in my opinion. I think Tiger can be more easily forgiven. He didn’t cannibalize his cherished sport. When an athlete makes a life, career, living off a sport they truly love & excel at, they should hold that sport in the very highest of respect & enact every possible avenue to ensure the highest of integrity & credibility. All of us do similar at the jobs we work at each & every day.

  4. John, thank you for the compassionate, in depth reflection on Lance Armstrong’s confession. You made me see it in a better, more knowledgeable light.
    Liz Northrop

  5. John, you write as a speaker, assessing how he presented himself. Since forgiveness came into it, perhaps a minister might be permitted to comment? 🙂
    In repentance / forgiveness, remorse is but a tiny part of the picture. I’m not concerned with how well he weeps for Oprah, or if he’s an effective communicator, or good at saying he’s sorry and appearing remorseful. Many a hypocrite is an expert apologiser. Blech. Some horribly hurting people smile or shut down emotions to cope. Others play the emotions game to their benefit. How remorseful someone does or doesn’t appear hardly registers for me anymore. If it’s real, it will show in actions — and that’s the thing that really matters.
    The guy who connects emotionally, who is good at this, scares me. My heartstrings attach to warning bells in my brain. The part you liked about his son — the guy apologising shouldn’t talk about his pain. He’s the perpetrator, not the victim. Even if real, that isn’t confession / apology material. Stow it. Maybe bring it out later. I’m >glad< there wasn't more of it. The feelings of the perpetrator are simply not what matters. In effective communication, yes. In repentance, no.
    Overall, my impression: a guy knows he has to finally admit the truth, didn't find it easy, but did it. Not a horrible start. Communication? Horrible. Repentance / forgivability? Maybe not bad. Effective communication and how forgivable a person is may be inversely proportional.
    What will he do now? John, that's the big thing, and you had an excellent emphasis on that in your last few paragraphs. Make things right, as much as possible. It's not what you say, how sincere and vulnerable and transparent you can make yourself look, or even what you honestly feel. It's what you do that really matters.
    This comment is too long, as is my bad habit. There's a chance that by continuing to read your site, I'll get better at that, but it's probably a terminal condition. 🙂

    1. Jon,
      Thank you very much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. It wasn’t too long at all! I very much appreciate your perspective and am confident that others will as well.
      I agree with your assessment of remorse and your call for caution when when we see someone shed tears for their transgressions. Ulterior motives and self-serving strategies are always a distinct possibility. Yet, if remorse is marginalized or removed from the equation, something is lost in the healing process.
      Among the many hats I wear, one is that of a lawyer. In criminal cases, one of the mitigating factors that a court will take into account when sentencing a convicted defendant is whether he shows remorse. Now, for truly heinous crimes, remorse will count for little. But for lesser crimes, remorse can mean a reduced fine or a bit less time in prison. Of course, it’s not an exact science and judges have to use their best judgment, but it is still a fundamental part of the judicial process in many countries. We want lawbreakers to pay for their wrongs but we also want to rehabilitate them so that they will not repeat.
      I also think that a person’s remorse is important for the victims. You are right when you say that it is not about Armstrong’s pain but rather about the pain of those he harmed. And yet, by exposing (a least a little of) his own pain — for example, when speaking about his son — it is, I think, an important signal to his victims that he is finally starting to understand the repercussions of what he has done. In reports that I have read after the interview, several of his victims have said that they wanted to see more remorse on his part.
      But, as we both agree, the real test will be the efforts to which Armstrong goes to make things right, as much as possible. That is what counts most and that is what will be the best evidence of whether or not he is truly remorseful.
      Thanks again for a great discussion.

      1. Thanks, John. I agree that victims want to see remorse. I’m not sure it helps them to hear about his pain over his son — if they want there to be pain, they want it to be over what he did to them. But remorse is emotional pain. How close are we getting to a revenge motivation when we start to talk about victims wanting to see pain? I think looking for / assessing the quality of remorse is dangerous for victims, and I always counsel them to look at actions.
        I know perceived remorse affects judicial penalties. It shouldn’t. It puts the judge in the position of assessing what someone is really thinking — tricky at best. It means lighter sentences for those who are emotionally skilled and / or good actors, and heavier sentences for those who are emotionally marred / socially inept. I fail to see how that is justice.
        I appreciate the discussion. Remind me next time I’m in legal trouble to retain you. 🙂

        1. You are right, Jon, that if the remorse is all inward (“I had to break the news to my son and it hurt”) it will be stunted, ineffective and pointless. However, if that pain leads to insight, understanding, recognition and ultimately remorse for the pain suffered by others, then it is an important part of the process. But we are still in the early days of this latest chapter of the Armstrong saga; it will be interesting to see how it plays out and I welcome updates to our conversation.

  6. Hi John,
    Read your article on LA and agree with you. Of course Oprah was delighted to get him on her show with her ratings so low. One reason she spread her interview over 2 days. I think she should stick to interviewing the Hollywood crowd. It would have been a much better interview had it occured on 60minutes or the like as the interview seemed almost scripted.

    1. Hi Mom,
      Thanks for the comment. You are right about the setting. Armstrong chose Oprah because he figured that it would be more of a softball interview and also to target the broader public. As you rightly point out, Oprah wanted Armstrong to boost her ratings. Only one of them got what they wanted, in my view. Oprah turned out to be a better interviewer on the subject than I had expected, but she still failed to follow up on some of his answers properly, instead moving on to another topic. I look forward to Armstrong giving testimony in an official inquiry or hearing.
      John xo

  7. Hi again John, and thanks for the insightful comments on the Lance Armstrong issue. One thing that strikes me most about the whole saga is the way the law was used and misused to sue the whistle blowers and intimidate others to remain quiet. All this was funded with, it seems, an unlimited supply of money. This pattern is a reoccurring one of recent times and not confined to just professional sport, but around issues like GM food opposition, suspect Pharmaceutical research, Banking practices and political party power struggles.
    It is interesting that law is your field. I recently confronted a top Australian judge after her presentation and asked that “since the budget for legal aid was limited, did that mean essentially that it is only the rich that can expect justice”. She tended to agree.
    The Armstrong case seems to highlight this, but many other falsehoods are protected by the misuse of the law in this way. Would love to hear you views on this. Or it may have to wait until you are downunder over a coffee.
    Cheers Chris

    1. Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the comment. Sadly, you are right. Money buys you better food, better clothes, better shelter and yes, better lawyers. But it’s one thing to have better lawyers who are just more skilled when it comes to litigation and another thing altogether to have lawyers (good or bad) who pervert the system of justice. One thing I remember well from when I did the Bar Admission Course in Canada was the fundamental principle that a lawyer’s first duty is to the court and the administration of justice.

      In fact, your message prompted me to go back to the Rules of Professional Conduct of the Law Society of Upper Canada. I come from a different legal jurisdiction, but I would be surprised if the the same principles were not in place in the jurisdictions where Armstrong brought his suits. Here are some of the key passages (emphasis added):

      4.01(1) When acting as an advocate, a lawyer shall represent the client resolutely and honourably within the limits of the law while treating the tribunal with candour, fairness, courtesy, and respect.

      4.01(2) When acting as an advocate, a lawyer shall not
      (a) abuse the process of the tribunal by instituting or prosecuting proceedings which, although legal in themselves, are clearly motivated by malice on the part of the client and are brought solely for the purpose of injuring the other party,
      (b) knowingly assist or permit the client to do anything that the lawyer considers to be dishonest or dishonourable,

      (e) knowingly attempt to deceive a tribunal or influence the course of justice by offering false evidence, misstating facts or law, presenting or relying upon a false or deceptive affidavit, suppressing what ought to be disclosed, or otherwise assisting in any fraud, crime, or illegal conduct

      Now, I have no idea what Armstrong’s lawyers knew or did not know (though I would be amazed if Armstrong was able to dupe them all along). However, if they helped Armstrong bring those law suits all the while knowing that they were completely baseless, then had these events taken place in Ontario, those lawyers would be subject to disciplinary action by the Law Society and would face significant professional, and possible criminal, sanctions.

      I will be interested to see what, if anything, happens in this regard. If I make it back to Australia, I will take you up on that coffee. Or better yet, a cold beer!

  8. Hi John,
    I have been reflecting on Lance and his interview as well, thanks for your post! For me, Lance’s demeanour shows the difference between being honest and being authentic, and how “spin” (in the PR sense, not the cycling sense!) just doesn’t work anymore. The world now demands authenticity.

    1. Hi Caroline-Anne,
      Thanks for the comment. I’m with you on the need for authenticity. Unfortunately, it appears that many people believe that Armstrong was being authentic; i.e., he showed little remorse because he (still) does not feel any.
      Armstrong no doubt received coaching and advice and you can see that in the way he passed on certain questions. Clearly, the more he says, the more he opens himself to liability. But frankly, he threw the doors wide open with his admission in the first place and if he is subpoenaed to give testimony he will have to give the full truth unless he wants to perjure himself again.

  9. This is a very thorough consideration John, thank you. I can’t get past the lack of motivation to make up for the damage he’s done – but then there’s a huge moral dilemma because of all the good he’s done: so many cancer sufferers helped. It’s the old bad-person-does-good-work problem. I wrote on my own blog about it too.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Claire. The story is sad on so many levels that it is hard to know where to begin. But your bad-person-good-work dilemma reminded me of an old (and underrated, in my opinion) film starring Gene Hackman and Hugh Grant, Extreme Measures.

      Basically, they are both doctors and Grant discovers that Hackman has been performing experiments on homeless people (which always result in their death) in order to find a cure for paralysis. Now, of course, killing people is far worse than what happened in the LA affair, but there are some eerie parallels.

      I appreciated your post. Thanks for sharing it. I encourage readers to visit Claire’s blog and read it for yourselves. In the meantime, if one goes by the “5Rs” of forgiveness in your post, it strikes me that Armstrong has done little bits of the first 3, but has yet to do any properly. Like I said in my post, I stand ready to forgive, but it will take much more than we have seen thus far.

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