Commentary

Don't expect true contrition

Lance Armstrong's story is built on so many lies there's no way to undo it

Updated: January 17, 2013, 12:47 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Here's the thing to remember as you watch Lance Armstrong's confession: He is not just someone who refused to answer the question. He is not someone who hid behind a language barrier or tiptoed around a perjury charge or misremembered whether he sat underneath an IV pole countless times while exogenous EPO -- or his own red blood cells -- dripped directly into his veins.

Lance Armstrong categorically denied any PED use, repeatedly and forcefully, and sought to destroy the lives or those who suggested his denials were nothing more than PR-based lies. And then he took those lies -- those massive stacks of pathological dishonesty -- and used them as the foundation for building a high-rise personal empire.

How do you achieve true contrition under those circumstances? When you've hedged your admirable and inspirational victory over cancer with a well-funded and well-orchestrated campaign to hide the truth, how do you stay clean when you come clean? How do you say you're sorry when you've perpetrated a huge fraud on some of the most vulnerable people, those seeking shreds of hope in an often hopeless struggle?

[+] EnlargeLance Armstrong
Gary Miller/Getty ImagesLance Armstrong was unapologetic in the months after the announcement his titles had been stripped.

Easy: You don't.

Armstrong is so celebrated for his defiance, both in fighting cancer and his detractors, that true contrition seems impossible. This was an American hero, an 18-speed cowboy winning the Tour de France seven times after overcoming testicular, lung and brain cancer. He destroyed his competitors, taunting them along the way, and then systematically bullied and dismissed those who questioned his methods. He was our guy, and even if you didn't know or care a thing about cycling or France or sunflowers or l'Alpe d'Huez, you still got a little gooey inside when you saw him standing there in the yellow jersey -- perma-yellow, he was -- winning another one of those three-week races.

How can that guy -- that look-you-in-the-eye and swear-to-God guy -- sit with Oprah Winfrey and bare his soul and confess his sins and slide into OprahTalk™ about his childhood and the biological father who wasn't there and the fight to prove himself and the world that never seemed to understand?

Easy: He can't.

We're a nation of prognosticators, so here's one: Lance was anything but demure in that interview the other night. We're about to be treated to five hours over two nights -- Frost/Nixon! Oprah/Lance! -- of a strident, defensive and combative Lance Armstrong.

Judging from Oprah's interview on "CBS This Morning" the other day, I'm guessing she was a little taken aback by the strategy employed by Armstrong. To wit:

She and her producers were surprised by his answers.

Translation: They didn't get the teary-eyed confession they've come to expect from the megastars who come to kneel in America's fame-meets-fame confessional.

Was he contrite? I'll let the viewers decide.

Translation: Hell no, he wasn't contrite. The old saw -- you decide -- means she's either teasing us or she was truly taken aback by the man's demeanor. This was supposed to be Lance's "come to Talk-Show Jesus" moment, the vein-opening America's been waiting for, and if She has to think for a moment before she answers that question … well, you weren't contrite. So if you're waiting for a heartfelt apology to Tyler Hamilton or Betsy Andreu or Floyd Landis or Emma O'Reilly, you're probably going to have to wait for the movie.

This isn't even about doping anymore. Lance's cult-hero status exceeded the boundaries of his sport and its institutionalized enhancement at least a decade ago. When ABC News asked Landis in 2010 if he would classify Armstrong as a fraud, he said, "Well, it depends on what your definition of fraud is. I mean it -- look, if he didn't win the Tour, someone else that was doped would have won the Tour. In every single one of those Tours."

At this stage, this is about the sad but inevitable destruction of a mythical icon who ended up standing for none of the things he pretended to represent.

For years, his recovery and subsequent charity work provided the perfect shield against his detractors. It allowed him to dismiss everyone who questioned him or doubted him as "bitter and angry." He was emboldened by the legions wearing yellow bracelets -- advertisements for him. And who could be bitter and angry toward a guy who overcame so much and gave so much back? Clearly, only the bitterest and angriest. But as Frank Rich wrote in New York Magazine, "charity doesn't balance the ledger."

Does it change anything that Armstrong has reportedly admitted to doping before he was diagnosed with cancer? Does the potential symmetry -- that doping may have played a role not only in his Tour wins but in causing his cancer, which in turn created the foundation and the bracelets and the fortune and the icon -- make this an even more sordid tale?

People wanted to believe in him, and he knew that and took it and spun it around to use against them.

Don't feel stupid. Don't feel duped. Everyone loves a fairy tale. There's no shame in that.

But maybe it's time to answer a question he himself asked in his decade-old Nike commercial: What was he on? The bike, sure, but also power, hubris and a virulent strain of narcissism. It's my bet none of that changes simply because Oprah's the one asking the questions.

It's hard to envision what lies ahead. Maybe in 25 years he'll be collecting checks to show up at triathlons and local charity races wearing an adjustable cap that says "Tour King" across the front. There will still be people who will pay attention, though, people who will remember the fuzzier parts of the fairy tale, and they'll be eager to get close enough to tell him they still believe. And it's a good bet that at least some small part of him -- that part that has forever separated the world into us against them -- will feel better because of it.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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