However queasy the prospect of Lance Armstrong "coming clean" under the Oprah Winfrey spotlight on Thursday night tonight may make you feel, one thing cannot be denied. The entire circus, with its elegantly choreographed week-long build-up, is in keeping with the rest of the Texan's cycling career. Having taken cycling on to the celebrity circuit, produced the biggest sporting comeback ever – based on deception though it was – and brought a whole new economic and charitable dimension to the sport, all the while being at the head of what the US Anti-Doping Agency described as the biggest sporting heist ever, Armstrong is now behind the most hyped up episode of media theatre cycling has ever witnessed.
The prospect of Armstrong's "confession" on Oprah has its own logic to it within the context of a career in which he earned celebrity status and milked it for all it was worth. This is, after all, the cyclist who brought Hollywood stars such as Jake Gyllenhal and Robin Williams to the Tour de France. He is the man who introduced bodyguards and spin doctors to European cycling, whose romance with Sheryl Crow kept the French press on tenterhooks, and who developed elaborate charades to avoid crushes of press and fans at race starts and finishes.
When he was merely a seven-times Tour winner, his press conferences were major occasions. It's perfectly logical that now he has been exposed as a lying, cheating, bullying, disgraced and disqualified seven-times Tour de France winner, we have to live through a week of intense hype and leaks followed by a two-part interview that presumably will attract an audience of epic if not record-breaking proportions.
As with so much that Armstrong did in the two decades he's been in cycling, this is way beyond the normal bounds of the sport. Cycling has had plenty of drug scandals but even when they don't disappear into the morass of the European justice system, they tend to be messy affairs, with a sordid side to them: Tom Simpson keeling over on a mountainside in southern France and unleashing 40 years of speculation and recrimination; Festina's cyclists being body-searched in grubby French police cells and placed under interrogation a little more aggressive than that of Oprah; Marco Pantani lying dead and half-naked in an apartment hotel in an out-of-season Italian coastal resort; Tyler Hamilton gazing into a toilet bowl, terrified at the colour of his urine after a bungled blood transfusion. They don't play out their final act in front of chat show queens.
Back in the 1990s there were mutterings from conservative European followers of cycling that the Tour de France's dominance of the sport, the race's metamorphosis into a televisual soap-opera rather than a bike race, would lead to something the French in particular decried as sport-spectacle. The fear was that the race, and with it the upper end of the sport, would end up consuming itself in a mix of celebrity and money. Once industrial doping appeared, the cocktail became all the more toxic so the thinking went. And as sport-spectacle goes, you can't go much further than the biggest celebrity the sport has produced "confessing" to industrial doping – however ambiguously or platitudinously – to the most famous celebrity interviewer of them all.
There is plenty of gruesome stuff in the lengthy details of the Usada Reasoned Decision on the US Postal Service scandal. It is fair to wonder how much of it will be put out there on Thursday night. Maybe Oprah will ask Lance about "Motoman" on the 1999 Tour, the syringes of EPO that were put into empty Coke cans, passed to a soigneur through the camper window and carried to a bin through the adoring crowds. Maybe she will ask about his treatment of the whistleblowers, or how he felt when he recorded the Nike ad in which he told the world the only thing he was "on" was his bike. Not to mention the way that David Zabriskie was cajoled into doping for US Postal when he had come into cycling precisely to escape drugs. There is no shortage of material.
Is redemption possible on the Oprah sofa? Perhaps, if what she elicited from Armstrong earlier this week is a complete, unconditional acceptance of the contents of the Usada report together with full apologies to those who were on the receiving end of his campaign to keep his reputation and earnings unscathed and to the cancer victims who believed in the myth. Not to mention an explanation of why he lied so persistently for so long. (We can imagine why, but it would be good to hear it from the horse's mouth nonetheless).
The problem for Armstrong is a legal inferno that way lies: perjury charges, Floyd Landis's whistleblowing suit, and so on. A full confession, and he reaps the whirlwind. Follow that logic, and the best option, for him, is an interview from which the message emerges that the context of the time left him with no option but to dope (it didn't), in which the men who ran the sport condoned doping (very debatable) and he is the victim – that the witch-hunt has been terribly hard on him, his family, and all those cancer sufferers who believed in him but even so he's sorry, in a general way.
Will it work? Who knows. The legal notices may still end up dropping through the letter box, but this is a throw of the dice that's worth making. As my colleague Matt Seaton wrote recently, all Armstrong has left to market is his celebrity status. Thursday night is the big sell.
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