Lance Armstrong: how to play the confessor without actually confessing

The American ritual of celebrity confession and redemption is an exercise in having your cake and eating it too.

You get to commit the career-ending crime – to fabricate the memoir, to have the affair with the intern – without actually having to end your career. But Lance Armstrong's much-hyped encounter with Oprah Winfrey, the first part of which aired on Thursday night, was something even more cynical and calculating: an attempt to confess without confessing. It was an effort to meet the minimum standards required for a celebrity confession while avoiding further legal liabilities, and leaving Armstrong's weapons-grade sanctimony intact. He wanted to have his cake and eat it too, but also not to eat it, and in any case, everyone was eating cakes, and it depends what you mean by "cake", and…

This made for compelling television, but not for any of the reasons Armstrong or his handlers might have wanted. Bursting into tears during a conversation with Oprah may be corny, but appearing to be almost totally without emotion, as Armstrong did, is far worse. It draws the audience's attention to the fundamental falsity of the whole operation. You're supposed to leave the viewer feeling moved, and perhaps a little morally superior - not soiled for having tuned in at all.

He admitted to doping, of course, and did so within the opening seconds of the show, under Winfrey's calmly precise questioning. (Because of her history of giving away free cars, and sometimes bestowing too much credibility on dubious guests, it's often overlooked how good an interviewer Oprah can be when she chooses.) But almost the whole of the rest of his 90-minute performance consisted of lawyerly quibbling. Had he pressured teammates to take performance-enhancing drugs? "I don't want to split hairs here," Armstrong replied, before going on to explain that he hadn't pressured them, but had allowed a situation to exist in which they'd felt pressured. At one point, he claimed, he'd even looked up the word "cheating" in a dictionary, and concluded, astonishingly enough, that it didn't apply to him.

Then there were the flat-out contradictions. Had he acted like a bully since he was a child? Yes, Armstrong conceded – only to claim, seconds later, when it helped him make a different point, that he'd only become a bully after being diagnosed with cancer at the age of 25.

Like an only partially competent table magician performing a card trick, Armstrong seemed to hope he could distract and confuse to the point where neither Oprah, nor the audience, would detect the problems with his argument. Fighting cancer had given him a "relentless, win-at-all-costs attitude," he explained, which had the unfortunate side-effect of making him relentlessly determined to take whatever banned substances his cycling victories required. But when Winfrey pointed out that he'd already admitted to taking such drugs prior to his diagnosis, he barely paused to agree, before galloping onwards with his talking-points.

The lowest and most alienating moment came when Armstrong purported not to remember whether he had sued Emma O'Reilly, the team's massage therapist, who he'd labelled an alcoholic and a prostitute after she blew the whistle. Winfrey had given Armstrong an easy opportunity to apologise to O'Reilly, but his self-absorption made that impossible. "We sued so many people, I don't even… I'm sure we did," he said.

If there was a detectible emotion, it was that Armstrong was enjoying himself -- which is a disaster, in crisis-management terms. Not that this should have been shocking. He had already shown an epic disregard for the rules of competitive cycling, so it was hardly surprising that he showed a similar disregard for the rules of the Oprah confessional. Winfrey never once elicited a shred of empathy on Armstrong's part. But the likeliest explanation for that, to judge from his responses on Thursday night, was that there wasn't any there.

Powered by article was written by Oliver Burkeman, for on Friday 18th January 2013 05.50 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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