Will Lance Armstrong Restore His Image, Or Tarnish It Forever?

Just a few days after airing an ultra-hyped – but superficial — interview with comedian David Letterman on her cable network, OWN, talk queen Oprah Winfrey announced that she’d succeeded in convincing cyclist Lance Armstrong to pay her a visit for what the New York Times suggested might be another anemic attempt at rehabilitating a star’s image.

Like Letterman, who’d taken a serious hit in popularity after admitting to having affairs with female staffers, Armstrong has good reason to appear to atone for past actions:

  • Last fall, a damning 200-page report from the United States Anti-Doping Agency accused Armstrong of using illegal performance enhancing drugs.
  • As a result, the Tour de France stripped the former cycling king of his seven titles.
  • He also received a lifetime ban from competing in Olympic events.
  • Not too long after, Armstrong resigned as chairman of the cancer-fighting organization he founded, known for its yellow rubber bracelets that bear the message, “Livestrong”.

Cheat To Win Bracelet

Almost overnight, the media went from portraying the 41-year-old as a bona fide champion nagged by doping rumors to a sleazy cheat with virtually no regard for how his actions had hurt others, including his fellow riders on the U.S. Postal Service cycling team. The hero once lauded for overcoming his much-publicized bout with cancer quickly sunk so far beneath contempt that The Onion satirical newspaper began selling a knockoff version of those yellow bracelets, stamped instead with the slogan “Cheat to Win,” that were billed as providing wearers with a timed-release mixture of HGH, EPO and testosterone.

“I just want you to try, that’s all.”

Pundits, including armchair psychologists like Winfrey, often remind us that Americans are largely a forgiving sort, willing to give second chances several times over, especially to public figures such as politicians and sports heroes. Even more when they’re quick to confess.

While it’s true that Armstrong stands to lose serious money, not to mention pending court battles, by publicly admitting he doped while competing, any choice on his part to come clean to Oprah could come off as strategic poetry. The Hallmark kind, that is.

With Letterman, Winfrey had several chances to probe deeper into, say, his feud with Jay Leno or to press for more specifics about his series of affairs. She didn’t, though, choosing to give Dave her version of the soccer trophy that kids get just for participating, and reminding him that life is all about finding one’s bliss, regardless of how many sacred trusts one breaks. Or who one hurts.

A hero’s way out?

With television viewers weary of news such as the Newtown shootings and the war over the fiscal cliff, it’s likely that Armstrong can get away with offering a standard mea culpa accompanied by two Hail Oprahs, and sidestep specifics that would only clutter what has become a familiar American liturgy since at least the Clinton presidency. With his absolver, Oprah, sure not to seriously challenge his answers and just as sure to pronounce that all, or most, is forgiven, Armstrong can skate close to the edge of the pit, while avoiding a headlong plunge. Kind of like the dramatic relief of that eleventh-hour call from the governor calling off the execution. Even though, in Armstrong’s case, everyone knows the execution was never going to happen.

Hardly a crowning glory for a man who once was known as The World’s Greatest Athlete. And far from the redemption a hero earns by falling on his sword. More like a mixture of cheap grace and Clintonian weaseling. A totally synthetic tonic, like snake oil, that only suckers buy.

Which, in the end, might serve as a fitting emblem of Armstrong’s legacy.

Image via Sebastian David Tingkær / Flickr

Serge Gurin

Serge Gurin is a partner and Chief Vision Officer at Pierce Mattie. Serge's key areas of focus include vision and growth strategy, concept design, science and technology, and creative development. A science fiction and comics geek, Serge does side projects in science, transhumanist philosophy, and neuroatypical research, and makes a mean vindaloo.

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