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Commentary: Lance, Oprah, and the Future

In less than twelve hours' time, that which we already know will become public record as Oprah WInfrey's television network airs the first part of a two-and-a-half hour interview with Lance Armstrong in which he confesses to using illegal performance enhancing drugs and methods throughout his career. Armstrong will levy charges against the upper echelons of leadership in the sport claiming they knew about and facilitated his doping. And he will probably ask for forgiveness, emphasizing that everybody was doing it and he was still the best Tour rider of his generation and even in history. The first two have been leaked to the press in the time past the Monday taping of the "hard hitting" interview and the final is mere speculation, but those of us familiar with the situation can nonetheless make solid guesses about the content and tone of the interview.

Cooper Neill

The content of Lance's confession will surprise few who follow closely the sport of cycling. After the US Anti Doping Administration (USADA) released it's "reasoned decision" in October that detailed all of its evidence that Armstrong broke numerous anti-doping codes, there could be little doubt that the allegations levied against Lance over the past years were true.

What is surprising is Lance's about-face from describing the USADA investigation as a "witch hunt" and calling the agency's head, Travis Tygart, a "choad," to confession in mere months. The stance of Armstrong and his legal team in the past year has not been designed to convince deep fans of the sport that he raced clean. By declining the chance to stand before a USADA arbitration panel and contest the charges levied against him, Armstrong might as well have admitted to doping. But for his larger audience, casual fans, those battling cancer and their families, and people who simply admired the work he and his Livestrong charity had done to help those battling with cancer, it was his only choice. Better to walk away and play the bigger man with more pressing concerns than fight Tygart and his cronies.

So why confess now? And why, of all places, on Oprah's show?

It is hard to do the topic more justice than Joe Lindsey has at his Bicycling blog Boulder Report. Oprah's metaphorical couch is a place where you come to seek forgiveness (and often to sidestep the more egregious details of your deeds). Armstrong wants forgiveness. No, he needs forgiveness, even if the time is not yet ripe. As Lindsey wrote yesterday, "For all his vaunted focus and willpower, Armstrong barely made it three months as a social pariah before crumbling." Yet, Lance has not taken actions towards those whose lives he wrecked havoc upon - Frankie and Betsy Andreau, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Emma O'Reilly - to earn it from those who hold many of the keys to his forgiveness. His statements in the interview, which Oprah described as not everything she was expecting and purposely avoided using the word contrite to describe, will be hard pressed to provide catharsis to those of us inside the sport. His likely assertions that "everybody was doing it" may earn him sympathy from some of those who consider him a celebrity outside of cycling, but that is all.

What of the content of the interview and Lance's actions leading up to it? According to inside sources, Armstrong approached the U.S. Government and offered to pay back $5 million of his salary and winnings from his US Postal days, an offer which may have been refused. He may have tried to attach himself to Floyd Landis' whistleblower suit against the federal government, again reportedly unsuccessfully. It all seems too little too late for Armstrong, who in the summer of 2012 blew off USADA's offers of a reduced sentence in return for testimony against others who doped and aided his doping. As the reality of lawsuits and a vanishing public image hit home, the man whose fighting spirit and tenacity was revered during his competition days is struggling to paddle his way back to the surface as the weight of his actions drag him downwards.

Little bad will come of Lance's confession aside from exasperated sighs and/or screams of "can he just disappear, please?", but can any good come of it? Among all the leaked details of his interview was that Armstrong had volunteered to testify against cycling officials involved in doping, most likely those who were in the UCI, the sport's international governing body. One can only hope that this happens to inject more force into the efforts of those like Greg Lemond and the Change Cycling Now organization that are fighting for reform of the UCI and removal of its allegedly corrupt upper management. The effect of such testimony on Armstrong's part could be massive and the final straw that breaks the back of Hein Vebruggen and his erstwhile colleagues.

So, while some may write off Lance's confession interview with Oprah as a last-ditch public relations effort to salvage what is left of his broader public image and maybe even return to competition in triathlons in the future, I will be watching. I expect no apology, nothing that may make me feel better about the character of the rider I view with great disappointment but also, still, partial admiration. Instead, I will be hopeful we see some statement that helps bring this house of cards tumbling down so we can rebuild the sport not only from the ground up as people like Jonathan Vaughters are striving to do now but also from the top down.

And if all else fails, I may watch merely to turn the interview into a drinking game. In any instance, I'll need a stiff one to make it through it all.