Friday, January 18, 2013

Taken for a ride?

Bicycle Thief (2013) Kodakotype by Pants

Oprah - if I were you, I'd check the bicycle shed, I think you may have been robbed.

In the bilious hype that has engulfed this (two-part, it turns out) interview, Oprah Winfrey suggested that Lance Armstrong did not dodge or shirk. Well, if that's the case, then I'm a yellow jersey.

Some questions and answers to start us off,

Does Armstrong admit to blood doping and taking banned substances? Yes - but only up until 2005. He claims his comeback years were completely clean.

Does he have any regrets? Yes - that he wasn't smart enough to negotiate the problem away when USADA first approached him.

Is he sorry? Yes - sorry that he got caught and will have to 'spend the rest of [his] life trying to earn back trust and apologise to people.'

It's playing out like a well-rehearsed two-hander so far. Is that what it is? It ain't Frost/Nixon and that's for damn sure. In this first episode, Winfrey allows many of her supposedly probing questions to be dismembered by commercial breaks and others to be capped with faux aphorisms, ('I'm flawed, deeply flawed'), followed by wistful and/or defiant glares.

It's certainly artful on Armstrong's part but is there collusion? More about that tomorrow, following the denouement, but it's uncomfortably cosy from where I'm sitting. Since I found out that this is a two-parter, (rendering the word interminable somehow inadequate), I'm wondering whether Winfrey has a long-game strategy beyond blessed relief that this gem has landed in her lap just as her OWN ratings are tanking. Is she circling for a kill? He's a crafty one. Is she smarter than she appears to be? Is he stupider? We'll have to wait until tomorrow to see. Meantime let's look at this exchange.

'Did it feel wrong?'
'No. Scary.'
'Did you feel bad?'
'No. Even scarier.'
'Did you feel that you were cheating?'
'No. The scariest.'

The odd thing is that neither of these mega-celebs seem daunted by this exchange or have the slightest desire to prolong it beyond the extent of exploring the positive, comparative and superlative forms of an abstract adjective that's more appropriate to a discourse on Halloween. The flippancy is indigestible. Armstrong did not think then and does not appear to think now that he ever did anything 'wrong'. (Wrong, of course, being a cultural construct in which certain really important people find a quality of, shall we say, flexibility?).

The word 'cheat' seems inexplicably alien to an adult who you might have assumed had grown up hearing it in a playground at some point, especially if he was into sports and had come from a less-than-privileged background. But the adult Armstrong needed clarity from a dictionary rather than his conscience to come up with,

'I went in and just looked up the definition of cheat and the definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don't have.'

Had his dictionary been tampered with as well as his energy shakes? Mine says, '[to] act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage.' It's the 'act dishonestly or unfairly' bit that appears apposite in this context, or indeed, any context.

Whilst he is maybe a little fuzzy about the difference between right and wrong, Armstrong has known all along that what he was doing was illegal. (Whether or not one thinks the words 'illegal' and 'wrong' are linked does, again, appear to depend on one's level of celebrity). He confirms the existence of 'Motoman', the shadowy courier who'd delivered drugs to riders on tour. And he explains away the strategic ceasing of illegal drug use just prior to the testing period as 'a question of scheduling.' He really does appear to believe, still, that to beat a drug test is to be proven drug-free.

Armstrong seems also to believe that he was fronting a military campaign rather than a bicycle race and was therefore entitled to all the concessions afforded a soldier defending the realm. But then, that 'foe' narrative is central to his life story, we discover. He says it many times - if you corner me, I'm going to come out fighting. He talks about his upbringing being tough. His mother had him when she was young. They always felt like they had their 'backs against the wall'. And it was the same with team cycling. Backs against the wall, all the time. And then cancer, the ultimate backs-against-the-wall scenario,

'It was win at all costs. When I was diagnosed, I would do anything to survive. I took that attitude - win at all costs - to cycling.'

And there's an awful lot of that. With Oprah, far from having your back against the wall, you'd be pushing at an open door with this schlock, surely. There'd be no other interviewer in the world who'd have more sympathy with this monster-level hubris than the billionaire who'd made a career out of being a curious hybrid of global confessor/confessee trading in super schlock.

Winfrey has said in interviews that she felt he'd 'met the moment'. It seems to me more like he walks up to it and punches it on the nose. So, he makes some routine admissions that somehow appear to be monumental by virtue of their being so long in the coming and frank because they come packaged in a blunt 'yes' but these are not revelations and rarely are they accompanied by an admission of culpability. Whenever the possibility of accepting responsibility arises, Armstrong distances himself by switching to the third person,

'It's a major flaw and it's a guy who expected to get whatever he wanted and control every outcome. And it's inexcusable.' 

And then he immediately goes on to excuse the apparently inexcusable in any number of ways, mostly by making these extraordinary measures sound bland and jobsworthy,

'There was a level of expectation. We expected guys to be fit to be able to compete.'

Which explains why taking drugs was,

'...like saying we have to have air in our tyres or water in our bottles. It was part of the job.'
 
 Which logically leads to the unflappable,

'I viewed it as a level playing field.'

How terribly sporting, old chum.

He casually admits to bullying,

'Yeah, I was a bully,'

and then undercuts it with the appalling and gratuitious discrediting of Betsy Andreu, the woman who gallantly testified against him and was rewarded with years of ferocious slagging,

'I never called you fat, Betsy.'

Here's what seems obvious to me. Armstrong refers several times to 'a process'. The whole business has a what-will-it-take feeling about it. Like the millionaire who yawningly peels off hundred-dollar bills to spring his/her errant child from whatever ghastliness it has stumbled into whilst checking his/her stock position on his/her smartphone, Armstrong's performance has the same ring of, well, okay, what do you want from me? 

He is that millionaire whose attention is on his smartphone rather than on the future of his unfortunate child. That cold, blue-eyed stare has so far been unflinching. It's the stare of a Rupert Murdoch saying, 'this is the most humble day of my life.' Murdoch is also a master at deflecting blame away from himself with breathtaking aplomb. As far as I'm aware, 'a day' cannot possess the quality of humility. Neither, it seems, can a celebrity. Lance Armstrong certainly hasn't shown signs of owning it.

Word on the wire is that if Armstrong wants to compete in triathlons and exhibition events in the future, USADA has insisted he 'testify under oath about the full extent of his doping activities'. Is the Oprah interview the first step in 'the process'? So might it be important to Armstrong to, say, establish one small 'fact' in the collective consciousness as part of this process? And might that small 'fact' be, say, the universal acceptance that the doping ended in 2005? And might that seem long enough ago for, say, a forgiveness narrative to commence? 

Yes, this is obviously a redemption story - and hopefully, tomorrow's interview will take us there. 

More tomorrow...