There are two plays going on in the matter of Lance Armstrong.
One is to the court of public opinion. That’s why he’s talking to Oprah Winfrey. It’s good for ratings, probably, but substantively may ultimately prove little. Lance Armstrong got caught in a big lie and now he wants something, so anything he says publicly has to be measured against what he wants.
Which leads directly to the second play: Lance Armstrong wants to compete again. To be clear, his cycling career is done. It’s not that. Instead, he wants to compete in triathlons.
And so he’s trying to figure out how to do that.
The challenge is that the one thing that has always been the hallmark of the Armstrong way has been stripped from him.
Which is: control.
In its damning report, issued in October, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency made plain that Armstrong had “ultimate control” over his own drug use, and the doping culture of his team, which it made plain was the most sophisticated and well-run scheme in sports history.
In particular, he controlled — there was a code of silence on his team — the fact that he doped to win.
As it all came crashing down, Armstrong sent out by Twitter the photo of himself lying around with his seven framed Tour de France jerseys.
The message could not have been more clear: Lance, king of the Alps, believed he was still in control.
That was a fundamental miscalculation.
You can bet that he and his legal team were stunned not only to see the riders he thought were his guys turn against him but, more important, the breadth and depth of the file USADA made public.
That was the game-changer.
Now, with sponsors fleeing or gone, he has to try to assert control of his narrative.
But choosing the time, place and manner of your “admission” — or whatever this turns out to be — is not real.
What’s real is testimony, delivered under oath, preferably subject to cross-examination. Anything else is just noise.
If you want to lie under those circumstances — like Armstrong did in 2006, when in connection with a contract dispute brought by the Texas company SCA Promotions, Inc., relating to a 2004 Tour de France bonus payment — then you get to face the consequences.
Which is one of the tap-dances Armstrong has to try to perform now, and why anything he tells Oprah ought to be measured against what he said under oath six years ago.
It’s not enough to be apologetic, or deliver contrition, or offer a confession of sorts.
Now is the time for accountability.
It’s this way when it goes bad on Wall Street and in lots of other areas of American life. The authorities can get involved, and they might or might not have their own ideas about your finances, sometimes even your liberty interest, and then you have to play by their rules, not yours.
This is how these things go. This is what USADA has made clear, and why — according to the New York Times — Armstrong is in discussions with the U.S. Department of Justice to possibly testify in a federal whistle-blower case involving the U.S. Postal Service team.
It’s not hard to figure out what USADA and the public authorities want to know: who funded the scheme and who else knew about it, and at what levels — how high — in international sport.
If you think about it, that thread of inquiry is not so different from the kind of thing you might find at your local courthouse. Imagine a drug case involving, say, methamphetamine or marijuana — the cops and prosecutors are typically far more interested not just in the end user but in the financiers and in the protection.
Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee, which is even now engaged in a far-reaching review of the roughly two dozen sports on the Summer Games calendar, has to be looking at what is going on in cycling with renewed interest. Baseball was kicked off the Olympic program in no small measure because of doping-related issues.
If it seems far-fetched to imagine the Olympics without cycling, it does not seem like much of a stretch to imagine cycling’s top officials under intense scrutiny in the coming weeks and months, with even their IOC privileges at issue. USADA and the World Anti-Doping Agency both made plain Tuesday that they would offer no cooperation with an “independent commission” being set up by cycling’s international governing body, which goes by the acronym UCI.
In the long run, the only thing that will clean up up the sport itself is, as USADA has proposed, a “Truth and Reconciliation” and amnesty program.
In the meantime, Armstrong is not going to get out of a lifetime ban by talking to Oprah. That’s just — ridiculous.
It’s what he has to say when he’s not on television that matters. And that’s going to take a while yet to unfold.
That said, a read of the World Anti-Doping Code strongly suggests that even if he were to name names — even big names — the best he could do is, first, get a hearing and then, maybe, get life knocked down to eight years.
Armstrong is now 41. Eight years makes him 49.
Which sort of makes you wonder what the Oprah thing is really all about. And when, if ever, Lance Armstrong is going to tell the whole truth, and nothing but.
Because that would be a show worth watching.