Live strong and live the lie – that is what disgraced American cyclist Lance Armstrong effectively did for more than a decade. By his own belated admission, after years of innuendo, rumour and allegations and, more recently, accusations by former teammates and charges by the US Anti-Doping Agency, he systematically took illegal performance enhancing drugs for all of his seven successive Tour de France victories from 1999 to 2005 – arguably the greatest doping scandal in all of sport, eclipsing Ben Johnson’s drug-powered 100 metres dash in Seoul in 1998 and the BALCO scandal, involving baseball and track and field, which broke in 2002.
Having lived in a state of aggressive self-righteousness and profitable denial for years, Mr Armstrong’s televised two-part confession to Oprah Winfrey last week seemed more of a calculated attempt to salvage his damaged reputation and staunch the haemorrhaging of lucrative sponsorship deals rather than a genuine act of contrition.
Mr Armstrong would appear to have finally realised that his is a tainted brand and that he and the Livestrong Foundation (his name was dropped from the title in November 2012), the cancer-support charity that is one of the top ten groups funding cancer research in the USA, stand to lose millions in sponsorship and fund raising. But, typically for a man who has looked down the barrel of testicular cancer and survived, the interview did not reveal a man who believed that his brand had been terminally tarnished and who seemed truly remorseful.
As acts of contrition by public figures go, few in the past 50 years can match that of John Profumo, a British Cabinet Minister who fell spectacularly from grace in 1963 – a time when higher standards of behaviour were expected of such personalities – after lying to Parliament to conceal an affair with a high society call-girl. After taking full responsibility for his ill-advised actions and self-inflicted disgrace, Mr Profumo retired from public life and quietly devoted his remaining 43 years to charitable work in the depressed East End of London. Everyone, of course, deserves a second chance in life and Mr Profumo used his to seek only to do good for others in his own personal quest for redemption.
On the other hand, even in this age of reality television and the public’s desire for real-life soap opera, Mr Armstrong’s carefully stage-managed mea culpa rang rather hollow. The overwhelming consensus in the media and on social networks seems to indicate that he will have to come better if he is to achieve any sort of favour in the court of public opinion.
We are not talking sackcloth and ashes; there is no need for Mr Armstrong to be publicly humiliated. Indeed, he has already humiliated himself more than anyone else could have done, particularly in the eyes of his family and his legions of admirers, not so much by his confession but rather by his serial cheating. To find a measure of forgiveness and personal salvation, however, he will need to find humility, genuine humility, before he can be regarded again as a decent human being. For the damage he has done to cycling and to sport in general, to people eager to embrace a hero in an oh-so-cruel world, and above all, to the young, impressionable fans, who hero-worshipped him as one of the greatest champions of any sport, is incalculable. Now, many who believed in Lance Armstrong will now see sport and the world through jaundiced eyes.
We need our heroes. We accept that they will be all too human and have their flaws. But to have them betray us so cynically is a colossal abuse of trust and a deception so monstrous that nothing Mr Armstrong does publicly from here on will ever be truly believed.
Mr Armstrong is fortunate that he may have escaped charges of perjury because of the statute of limitations. Some of those he wronged and deceived are, however, queuing to sue him. Lance Armstrong lived strong and lived the lie. He will now have to pay the price. Then, for his own good, for the good of the Livestrong Foundation and for the sake of maintaining some belief in the uplifting power of sport, he would do well to withdraw from public life, enjoy his family and try to regain his self-respect – that is, if he ever had any in the first place.