News: Lance & Oprah…It’s Come to This

By Vernon Felton

Tomorrow, Lance Armstrong will sit down on the couch across from Oprah Winfrey and face some serious questions. Or maybe not. Oprah isn’t known for grilling celebrities who’ve massively crapped the bed and then visit her show in a public act of contrition.

Will Lance confess to doping? The segment was taped last Thursday and leaks abound suggesting the Armstrong admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. Then again, with the testimony of 11 former teammates and a thousand pages of evidence weighing against Armstrong, the doping thing is really no longer a point of contention.

He doped…. As did just about everyone with stellar Grand Tour results during that period.

Professional cycling, in fact, has never been a “clean” sport. Rat poison, cocaine, speed, caffeine suppositories—people have been injecting, gobbling and sticking things up their arse in pursuit of the podium before the Tour de France was even born.

I think the more interesting question here is whether Oprah will get to the root of Armstrong’s having bullied, maligned and, ultimately, silenced a huge range of people who decided to speak out about his use of performance-enhancing drugs and about drug use in the peloton in general.

Will there be apologies to Emma O’Reilly, Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, Betsy and Frankie Andreu, Greg LeMond, David Walsh and others? Will London’s Sunday Times get their money back? The Times, after all, lost a bundle of it ($485,000 to be exact) when Armstrong successfully sued them for libel back in 2006. It’s Rupert Murdoch’s rag and his lawyers want $1.6 million from Armstrong now. Clearly, a heartfelt “Sorry” and a Christmastime summer-sausage sampler isn’t going to cut it with Murdoch.

The Times, in fact, rather pointedly took out an ad in the Chicago Tribune, Oprah’s hometown paper, in which David Walsh suggests a list of 10 questions that Oprah ask of Armstrong. While I doubt Oprah even took notice of the advert (the woman essentially inhabits her own Matrix-like universe), putting even half of those questions in front of Lance would make for riveting television.

Why is Lance confessing in the first place? Why not just sit at home with his seven yellow jerseys and a cold can of Lone Star? He could very well pull a Richard Nixon, climb into his cave and flip the bird at the rest of the world until his dying day.

I’m guessing Armstrong is confessing more out of a hope that it will enable him to get back to competition. The guy had base-camped in Hawaii to train for the Ironman (his first love, after all) and was slated to compete in Tri’s big event until USADA pulled the rug out from under him last year. Not being able to thrash mortals in televised feats of strength? That’s probably the worst punishment you could dole out to Armstrong. If anything could make Lance come forward with the truth, it’s probably the promise of an official pardon on his death sentence from professional competition.

Retirement, when that phase of Armstrong’s life inevitably knocks on his front door, is going to be a bitch.

What will happen on Oprah’s couch tomorrow? Hard to say. Either way, the show probably won’t clean up the peloton. Nor will it shed light on the larger issue of drugs in sport.

Do we really think that America’s wildly successful baseball, basketball and football stars suddenly sprouted 40 to 100 extra pounds of muscle over the past couple of decades by simply drinking Muscle Milk? Let’s not be naive. And yet that knowledge won’t stop anyone from watching the World Series, NBA Finals or Super Bowl. Cycling just happens to be a good deal more transparent and rigorous in its drug testing than other professional sports.

Cycling looks bad because we’re close enough to see its ugly, wart-covered ass.

I’m not suggesting that a drug-filled peloton is hunky-dory: it’s a problem. On a whole lot of levels.

Most athletes, however, will do anything it takes to win when the stakes (and the payouts tied to victory) are this high. If you believe otherwise, you probably believe in unicorns and flying pigs too.

Lance Armstrong’s behavior over the years has been, as the French so eloquently put it, “tres douchey”, but while it might be cathartic for the general public to nail this guy to the cross, I hope that we also demand clean athletes and fair play in all professional sports.

Yeah, I know…fat, f*cking chance.

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