SPIRO: Mission accomplished for Oprah and Lance, alas

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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    Lance Armstrong's Oprah Interview achieved a cynical purpose for both interviewer and interviewee (Image: OWN)

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    Oprah Winfrey got her ‘leaping on the couch moment’ in the second part of her turgid interview with Lance Armstrong when the disgraced athlete became almost teary.

    His lips quivering and eyes reddening, he discussed how he broke the news of his blatant lying about his prolonged use of performance enhancing drugs to his son..

    Winfrey then switched the questioning to whether Armstrong was in therapy. She sounded triumphant when Armstrong confirmed he was. This sequence of questions got to the heart of what Winfrey is all about.

    She poses as a sort of goddess mother-confessor to the nation. Her new age sensibilities are designed to remove guilt and consequences from American celebrities who have behaved in a sleazy, greedy and unacceptable manner.

    All the shamed celebrities have to do is confess to Winfrey (and especially this, rating after all is the point of the interview), apologise (sort of) to everyone they have offended, confirm that they are in therapy and then get the Winfrey benediction.

    So it was part of the con inherent in the interview that Winfrey did not follow up on questions and answers which cried out for a sequence of informed and pointed questioning.

    Armstrong confirmed, for example, that there were others who ‘knew the full story.’

    But who are these others? Winfrey passed immediately to another series of questions that were related to ‘how did you feel’ notions and allowed Armstrong the chance, which was quickly taken, of getting out of a line of questioning that may have produced some useful information.

    There was no probing of Armstrong’s alleged complicity with the International Cycling Union (UCI), the authority that runs cycling worldwide. Nor was there probing on the doctors and the facilitators who allegedly provided the drugs and machines that allowed the intensive dope-taking exercise to continue for so long.

    The end of the interview, which concluded with an existential whimper rather than with the bang of a real confession, gave away the reckless and stupid game Winfrey was playing.

    Armstrong was asked what was the moral of his journey through the doping, the lies, seven Tour de France victories, the splenetic and vicious attacks on friends and journalists determined to expose the truth about a vindictive control-freak inflated with hubris and an obsession to win everything no matter what the cost was to his sport, cycling.

    When he baulked at the idiotic question, Winfrey provided her own and equally idiotic answer: “The truth will set you free.”

    I have deliberately used the word ‘idiotic’ to describe the question and the answer because the one thing the two-part interview had not concerned itself with was the truth.

    Winfrey’s mission was to get her ‘leap on the couch’ moment. Armstrong’s mission was to build his defences against the inevitable court actions and investigations that are going to follow his qualified coming out on his dope-taking practices.

    And these defences were constructed and laid out with all the cunning and control-freak manipulation of his past attacks on his opponents.

    Yes, all seven Tour de France victories involved dope-taking on his part, he conceded. But, or more appropriately BUT, everyone else was using performance-enhancing drugs, so what he did was really not cheating, according to the dictionary meaning of the word. He was not so much taking unfair advantage of his opponents as just doing what they were doing, too.

    Truth be known (and this is parsing Armstrong’s ‘reasoning’), he was less culpable than the others because he was using much lower quantities of the dope than they were.

    A perceptive friend sent me an email that sums this up: ‘Armstrong does not see himself as guilty. He sees himself as a victim: the first time it was cancer, second time he is a “victim” of a drug culture.’

    Winfrey let this nonsense be put forward without requiring an explanation from Armstrong and without pointing out this was illegal behaviour and that there were members of his own team who refused to take part in the performance enhancing circus.

    Having admitted that yes he and all the other cyclists were using banned performance-enhancing drugs during his greatest days, Armstrong then went on to argue that in his comeback to the Tour de France in 2009 and 2010 he didn’t use drugs.

    He dismissed findings to the contrary, which had a one-in-a-million chance of being wrong, as being wrong.

    This is an important denial on Armstrong’s part, for it relates to his contentious claim he ‘deserves’ to be allowed to compete again despite the life-time ban placed on him by the US Anti-Doping Agency.

    Armstrong’s argument to Winfrey (which was not contested as it should have been) is that other cyclists received six month bans for taking illegal drugs while he has been banned for life. “It’s a death penalty,” he asserted.

    Dozens of well-paid lawyers are working away right now, no doubt, on establishing the unfairness of Armstrong’s treatment and getting the authorities to accept his apologies and the fact he has lost millions of dollars in sponsorships.

    Having accepted this argument, it is only a small jump for the authorities to say he has paid a full price for his sins and Armstrong is, as they say, on his bike once again.

    This is where the denial of doping in his comeback is important. If he used performance-enhancing drugs when most of the other riders did not, then there is no comeback for Armstrong. So we get the denial, despite the evidence.

    In any court case on this point, Armstrong has set himself up for this sort of defence.

    Question: ‘Tests show you used performance enhancing drugs in your comeback.’

    Answer: ‘The tests did not show this. They showed that there was a one-in-million chance that I did not use the drugs. I claim this possibility and assert I did not use the drugs. Can you claim definitely from these tests that I did use the drugs? You cannot. And I claim I didn’t.’

    Armstrong was equally evasive or well-briefed by his lawyers in setting up defences against the many people who might want to sue him defamation or might want to recover monies he has taken from them in defamation actions.

    He denied Betsy Andreu’s claim, for instance, he revealed to his doctors treating him for cancer he had use performance-enhancing drugs. Presumably, the doctors are bound to a code of confidentiality and it is Armstrong’s word against hers if the matter comes before a court.

    Winfrey did ask Armstrong whether he would apologise to The Sunday Times crusading journalist David Walsh whose paper Armstrong successfully sued for stating (correctly as it happens) that he’d used illegal performance-enhancing drugs and practices in his Tour de France victories.

    Armstrong was grudging in his response: “I’d apologise to David Walsh.”

    Again Winfrey just allowed this response to go unchallenged. Why didn’t she point out that as apologies go, this was far from convincing? And, more importantly, what did he intend to do to restore the harm done by him to Walsh’s reputation, as well as the financial cost to him and his newspaper?

    The Sunday Times says it is deciding on whether it can retrieve its costs and the payout to Armstrong. I’m hoping they sue him to malicious defamation and send out a message to Armstrong and all the other people involved with sports, the stars and the management who continually put journalists under defamation pressure even when they are telling the truth, that we’ve had enough and we aren’t going to cop it anymore.

    An action by The Sunday Times (actually by David Walsh and supported by the Times) for Armstrong’s defamation of Walsh by taking him to court for accurately reporting his illegal practices would strike a magnificent blow for media freedom if the courts imposed a very large pay-out in favour of Walsh.

    Let’s get real about all this Oprah-Lance business.

    For Winfrey interviews like this are all about trying to regain her status as the mother-confessor of the United States. This is a cynical and, in the case of a great sport like cycling, a destructive thing to do.

    Cycling needs Armstrong out for life. He needs to be punished essentially forever for trashing his sport, and for trying to destroy people who saw what he was doing and had the courage to try expose him.

    The death penalty, as he calls it, is what he now has. It is what he deserves, and more.

    It must be maintained by the authorities, despite all the expensive spin he and Oprah have invested in trying to set him free.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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