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Monday, January 14, 2013

Guest post: The Last Lance?

Guest Post: The Last Lance? - Dr John McGowan

This is the week when the world will "learn" from Lance Armstrong that he used performance-enhancing drugs. There is a 1000 page report from the USADA that already tells us this, so the exact role that Oprah Winfrey will play in this evolving theatre remains to be seen. The greatest initial criticism when Armstrong announced that he would sit in Oprah's confessional was that she would be soft, uninformed and unlikely to expose the full extent of his actions. Exhibit A - Marion Jones on the Oprah couch. But then again, there are 1000-pages to tell us the truth, so we needn't despair.

As for whether Oprah will know what to ask, unless she has sequestered herself in a cave for the last two weeks, she should, because enough people have told her what to ask. That included this from William Fotheringham (10 questions Oprah should ask), these five questions that Betsy Andreu would ask, and then the ten questions from David Walsh, which were published in the Chicago Tribune.

It has also been reported that Oprah's team has been in contact with the Lemonds, the Andreus and David Walsh, to find out their perspectives on Lance's deception. But, it's one thing knowing which questions to ask, it's quite another to know the questions (and challenges) in response to the answers, as David Walsh pointed out on Twitter this week. The best example of this comes from this excellent article by Joe Lindsey, who points out that some of Armstrong's 1999 samples that tested positive for EPO contained no naturally-produced EPO. It was all synthetic. The implication? Armstrong had been doping for so long, so aggressively that his body had stopped producing its own EPO. That is the context that is necessary in the event that Armstrong argues that he only doped "a little" to keep up with the culture of the sport. These are nuances that matter, and which will likely escape this particular "confession".

Also, there's a really good chance that Lance will invoke the "everyone was doing it, so it was a level playing field" argument. This is completely nonsensical, because doping clearly doesn't affect everyone equally - it's a matter of physiology and morality, and of course some were prepared to try to get away with more than others. Having exclusive rights to the least moral doctor helped, and so did blowing the whistle on fellow dopers who were beating you. Not to mention the fact that not everyone was doping to begin with, so someone in those races was being defrauded. So let's hope that Oprah doesn't sit there with deer eyes and accept this lazy, utterly incorrect argument about a "level playing field". For more on this, refer to Point #3 in this article that I wrote in August last year

The strategic angle - how best to manipulate public opinion?

The story of Lance Armstrong has been an evolving production, now into its final act. Maybe. Probably not. I haven't written much on it at all, primarily because there are many others who do it so much better (like Joe Lindsey, and this piece, which is rightly scathing of Armstrong, and describes his likely justification for doping - "I did the bad thing for the greater good"), and whose job is to cover this kind of news. But it's also because there's "Lance fatigue" - it's been five months of endless Lance coverage. When that USADA Reasoned Decision came out, followed by the 1000-pages of supporting evidence, the book was closed. It was over. For some, of course, the denial has been more stubborn, but I think most were swayed by the sheer strength and weight of evidence.

However, the story has refused to die, and now, in the latest play, Armstrong has turned to the priestess of television. I've provided links to the best of the articles over on Facebook and Twitter, for those who want to keep up to date through the social media platforms. But the response to many links has indicated that you too are suffering from Lance-induced burn out. 

But, alas, there is more to be said. A big part of the fascination with the Oprah interview is that Lance has always been strategic and manipulative, and this is likely no different. We suspect we know his intentions - media coverage, becoming relevant again, having his ban reduced to allow him to compete again. Quite how he plans to achieve the 'end-game' has been the subject of endless speculation, and therein lies the story for now. Will he admit to everything? Will he apologize? Does he have information that hasn't been revealed, and will he name those who facilitated his fraud? That means Ferrari, Bruyneel, the UCI, Verbruggen, McQuaid and co. Doping is only part of it - the intimidation, the bribes and payoffs, the threats and the legal bullying of those who dared to tell the truth is what sets Lance Armstrong apart from the sport's other dopers. Will Oprah Winfrey recognize this? Only time will tell.

For more on this, rather than repeat what I've read, I post below a guest article written by Dr John McGowan, who has previously written for us on the Armstrong story. McGowan is the Academic Director of the Department of Applied Psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent. He previously tackled the issue of whether doping should be legalized as well as the psychology of Lance's unpopularity, and today discusses the possible outcomes of the Oprah interview. Here is his piece:

The Last Lance, by Dr John McGowan

I thought I’d had enough of Lance Armstrong. Really. Lately I’ve felt completely sated with battles, dominance, accusations, denials, aggression, petulance, banal tweets, more battles, disgrace, and ultimate capitulation. Though whether his decision not to contest USADA’s charges was indeed capitulation depends on who you ask. After all, as of today, he’s still admitting nothing. Truth told, I didn’t care. Me and Lance were through. However, suddenly it seems that his interest value might not be completely played out and that there may be one more great spectacle to rival Luz Ardiden in 2003. As anyone with a pulse-rate monitor (or even just a pulse) knows, on the 17th of January, Lance is going head-to-head with Oprah.

I’m clearly not the only one who’s been snapped out of an uninterested torpor. Suddenly all those people eager to tell us what a poor human being he is, and how they too are over him, are speculating wildly on what he will say. Will he come clean? Go on denying? Why is he doing it? Can he come back into the public’s affection? Go into politics? He’s loaded still isn’t he? Or is he broke? Is this the beginning of his rehabilitation? Or the last hurrah? I can’t pretend to know what he’ll say or what the effect will be, but I have a few thoughts on what the constraints on him are and whether or not this really is the end.

Around the time of USADA’s “Reasoned Decision” I wrote a post here discussing the ethics of doping. Though we often treat dopers as pantomime baddies, the issue is a little hazier than that. There are even those who advocate a liberalised regime around performance enhancements in sport. Such arguments are based on a judgement that fair competition and safe sport are illusory, that much of the harm caused by drugs flows from under-the-radar use, and that the authorities are unlikely to ever catch up with what the athletes are doing.

There is something to be said for all of these positions, though I went to some lengths to say why I didn’t agree. The broader point though, is that advocating doping in sport isn’t simply a kooky position that is easily dismissed. Rather an informed opinion requires appraisals about where you stand on these different issues. It’s clear that doping may be the result of a range of considerations and pressures, and the caricature of the “dirty doper” may mask a more complex reality. Given this, my other main contention in the earlier article was that the beefs many have with Lance are related to his dishonesty rather than his drug-taking, and far more about his bullying than his breaking of the rules.

Full tearful confession?

The interview with Oprah is being sold as “no holds barred”, and the primary question flying round the internet is “will Lance finally fess up?” The emerging consensus seems to be a resounding, "No". Why? Well firstly there is Oprah’s interviewing style, widely perceived as too soft to expose the more uncomfortable stuff. Additionally you might wonder whether she or her audience is likely to be informed about the nuances of Lance’s EPO profile in the year after the Festina affair. 

He may also be unwilling to come completely clean voluntarily for various reasons. There is a delicate web of legal considerations he has to navigate (outlined here in an excellent piece by Joe Lindsey). To this I’d add what we know of Lance’s own attitudes. This is a guy who didn’t just want to win races. This is someone who, as former soigneur Emma O’Reilly described it, was so alpha he basically felt he was cycling. And someone who transcended his sport completely. This was a kid from a tough background who became the “Cancer Jesus”, who courted rock stars, and who called the tune for Presidential candidates. Going from that to being an ordinary mortal, prone to weakness and error, is a long fall and you get the feeling that, if it was going to happen, the tearful confession would have come some time ago. 

It must be quite awful to be inside his head right now. We know how invested in that identity he was, from how hard he fought when it was threatened. What can it be like to to lose it? Confession might happen of course, but I suspect penitence is not really Lance’s style. With all the murky water that’s flowed under the bridge you also can’t imagine that he can do a Marion Jones (another Oprah disgrace special) and admit drug taking while saying he thought it was ginseng or intravenously administered red zinger. 

Continued denial?

If complete confession is off the table then, surely, so is continued denial. To continue on this path would maintain the current surreal limbo where his statements have no credibility and supporters cling to conspiracy theories. And anyway, if he is just going to stonewall why bother going through the whole charade? It seems likely he wishes to open the way for a return to competition (presumably dominating the world of veterans’ triathlon) and regain some measure of public esteem. If the rumour mill is to believed, the interview is partly a result of pressure from Livestrong and it’s hard to imagine that they would be happy with a continuation of the status quo.

Hedged admission?

So what can he possibly say that will help him? The most convincing prediction I’ve read comes from cycling journalist William Fotheringham. He expects a rather hedged performance, with some vague half-admissions, and suggestions that he didn’t do anything different from what everyone else was up to. That something like this will be the tactic has subsequently been borne out by advance PR from the Armstrong camp. Presumably this would make a decent platform to cast doubt on other elements of the evidence against him as exaggerated or vindictive. This kind of tightrope walk between impossible alternatives sounds like a tough gig, but I expect Lance has been training for it with the intensity he used to reserve for L'Alpe d'Huez. Still, even soft interviewers can simply give you just enough rope (as Oprah did with Marion Jones). Coming out of this unmarked is not a foregone conclusion.

Fotheringham goes on to suggest that, if Lance can pull off this strategy, then a measure of rehabilitation might be possible: among Yanks who know nothing about cycling, if not the more hostile public elsewhere. It worked for Richard Virenque who still trades on his rather soiled King of the Mountains jerseys. The path to rehabilitation is also well trodden by others. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched that admitted doper (and now vociferous clean sport campaigner) David Millar will end up as one of the governors of cycling. And who's to say that’s would be a bad thing? OK, Lance’s malfeasance may be of a different order in terms of scale and in his role as an instigator and intimidator.

However, in an environment where Mike Tyson has movie profiles devoted to his introspective complexity and Chris Brown duets with Rihianna, there doesn’t seem much that celebrities can’t come back from. Perhaps Jimmy Savile-style crimes or life-threatening violence but in the UK, even a confederate of the Kray Twins, “Mad” Frankie Fraser, has spent a good portion of his twilight years being a kind of celebrity goon. This is despite being colloquially known as “The Dentist” for levels of oral brutality that I’ll leave you to imagine.

The unforgivable sin?

For all the redeemed souls knocking about though, I’m still not confident that Lance can become one of them and mount a comeback. As I’ve argued before, the key comparison here is with Tiger Woods. In a world where so many sins can be washed away by fame, there is one that is unforgivable: that of trashing your own public image. In Tiger’s case it was the perception of him as preternaturally focused and mentally strong, above ordinary mortal weakness. Since that one went out the window he has managed to find his way back in golf (though hardly to his old form), but his public standing and commercial value have taken a permanent nosedive. Chris Brown or Frankie Fraser may have done terrible things but they were never really perceived as anything more than vicious thugs. They didn’t have any public standing to lose. In cycling Virenque or Millar hadn’t anything like the fame or the heroic stature of Lance Armstrong. The nature of his transgressions means the incompatibility between the Armstrong brand and his actions is now vast, and the hero of old is gone forever.

Tiger is still competing and there is some residual interest in whether he can win another major. I’m struggling to see what new reason Lance can give the public to pay attention to him again. Cancer inspiration once more? Good luck to those who find him so, but for most, I suspect that ship has sailed. Victim of a conspiracy by the authorities and an unfair media machine? It might appeal to a few but I certainly won’t be pre-ordering his next volume of memoirs. Anti-doping convert à la Millar? In a parallel universe maybe. A full confession might help bolster WADA and USADA’s credibility but I’m wondering now how many people would actually care. I guess it’s possible that he may have some role in sport once more but that’s hard to see unless he can find a rapprochement with USADA . Other than a complete confession I’m not sure how that would happen and they don’t really need to do a reduced-sanction deal with him anymore. His failure to strike such deal before the reasoned decision was significant misstep for the master of the well-timed move. 

Perhaps part of the interest, and the poignancy, of the Oprah appearance is that it’s not clear whether this will be a re-launch (of a minor sort), or if Lance will simply fade from view. No-one really knows but one thing is certain. Even if he does find some way back, very few of us will ever live strong again.

Dr John McGowan
Year/Academic Director,
Department of Applied Psychology
Canterbury Christ Church University

Your comments, as always, are welcome. Dr McGowan has promised to also respond for those who fancy a discussion around his piece. Until the show, discuss away!