Oprah says she found Lance Armstrong’s doping confession just mesmerizing: “I think the entire interview was difficult” for the seven-time Tour de France winner, Winfrey told CBS News. After years of denying he ever touched a performance-enhancing drug, the cyclist was “pretty forthcoming” in their 2½-hour chat at the Four Seasons in Austin, she said. “We were mesmerized and riveted by some of his answers.”
Liars can have that effect, of course, and she has a show to promote. But some of us who’ve lost years, friends and body parts to cancer are not quite so fascinated.
Because even after he started cheating in the mid-’90s, Livestrong had a chance to strike an important blow against cancer, which has been linked to both steroids and human growth hormone. Don’t do what I did, he could have said after his diagnosis, and millions would have listened.
Instead, the message he and his tacky plastic bracelets sent around the world was just the opposite: Whatever he was doing, it was clearly worth emulating. Sure, because he was the guy who’d stared down death and ridden off laughing.
Turns out, jilting that nice Sheryl Crow was the least of his crimes; Armstrong, who put cycling on America’s map, got rich and famous on a lie, and dynamited his sport in the process.
The titles have been taken back now and the required apology tour has finally begun. But here’s the answer to the question Oprah wouldn’t answer, about how contrite the former champion is: Even now, the waist-deep hooey on his website, LanceArmstrong.com, features the cliche that he saw cancer as “the best thing that ever happened to me,” since his “new perspective allowed him to think beyond cycling and focus on his debt to the cancer community.”
Au contraire, as they say in his favorite country, he played those of us in the “cancer community” for suckers and not only milked his diagnosis but used it for ill. No matter how much good the foundation he founded 15 years ago has done, the truth would have done far more — and the next time those donors are tapped for cash, isn’t his dishonesty what they’ll remember?
Armstrong rewrote what could have been a cautionary tale as a heroic one, all the while threatening his various enablers to keep his secret and defaming any who dared tell the truth.
Even when he retired in August and stopped fighting the accusations that he’d spent his career running a big, complicated cheat, he was still blaming everyone but himself, calling the well-documented U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s case against him “an unconstitutional witch hunt” that was “one-sided and unfair” and based on “outlandish and heinous claims.”
On his website there is still a link to a pre-Oprah story in Forbes magazine that asks, “Was it all a lie? Who cares. Cheater or not, has any athlete done more with their fame than Lance Armstrong to benefit people?”
He can keep telling himself that, but he won’t find much sympathy among others who’ve fought cancer. Any late-breaking crocodile tears that will be televised on Thursday and Friday have been shed in the hope that he can get a reduction in his lifetime ban from the Olympics, reportedly so he can compete in triathlon and running events.
And whatever his punishment, I hope he’ll leave his fellow survivors alone from now on; you’ve done quite enough to help us, thanks, and made the world a more cynical place.
Maybe now we will discuss the links between cancer and not just steroids but hormones, even if the answers aren’t what we want to hear.
But as far as we’ve come in demystifying the many diseases rolled into that one scary word, “cancer,” one of the most persistent myths is that it makes you a better person.
It is not necessarily ennobling, though, and if we learn that harsh truth, it will be the only good that has come of this long, sad saga.
Melinda Henneberger is a columnist for The Washington Post.