His name alone has a mythic quality, a sort of confident sallying-forthness that – at least in my mind – calls up the image of one of the King’s good men riding forward into the wood, dark though it may be. Lance Armstrong. The myth seeded in the name itself, destined one day to be realized: Seven-time winner of the Tour de France. Philanthropist. Celebrity. Cancer survivor. Lance Armstrong. A name with a sense of destiny, a hero – like so many of our modern heros – fated to fall.
Last week, we got the story of his fall. And the story we got was this:
Lance — a young innocent, an ambitious competitor — rode forward into the wood of competitive cycling only to find himself surrounded by a culture of lies and deceit, a culture in which all cyclists dope. That culture, ubiquitous and oppressive as it was, forced itself on Lance and not only promised but readily delivered great things, things that are not “humanly possible.” The wins and the wins and the fame and the fortune. The myth growing and growing and, as it did, growing increasingly untenable.
What we got in the Oprah-Armstrong interview is the story of a man swept up, of a hero felled on the road of trials. Note, here, the passive voice; it’s central to understanding the story being told and the true motive behind its telling.
Just What Are We Doing Here?
Many have criticized the Oprah and Lance Armstrong interview, calling it “flawed” and “shame entertainment.” And these criticisms might be fair if what we were gathered together to witness was a true public ritual of reconciliation, of a teary-eyed mea culpa and all the whimpering red-facedness one might expect to accompany it. But what really brought us together was less a ritual of reconciliation than it was a game of image management, and to hold the practices of the latter to the standards of the former is a bit naive, especially for commentators in today’s media environment.
Lance Armstrong’s objective in the Oprah interview was not to apologize. In fact, he really didn‘t do much apologizing at all. Sure, he cited things he should be sorry for (“…I didn’t try to stop the culture, and that’s my mistake, and that’s what I have to be sorry for…”) and he acknowledged that he owes the public and specific people an apology (“…one of the steps of the process is to say sorry…”). However, when it came to making an explicit apology there’s was always some prestilinguistation involved, some sort of linguistic trickery that in one deft move simultaneously wrapped itself in the cloth of an apology while transferring the burden of accountability onto some other object across the room. So we get smooth-handed statements in which the apology is book-ended by justifications, where the banner of the apology hangs easily over Lance’s head while the weight of accountability is borne by other cyclists (victims of indirect finger-pointing), on the one end, and the cycling culture at-large on the other:
“I don’t want to accuse anybody else. I don’t want to talk about anybody else. I made my decisions. They are my mistakes, and I am sitting here today to acknowledge that and to say I’m sorry for that. The culture was what it was.”
It’s not that Lance is sorry for doping and for lying about doping for so many years. Rather, he’s sorry for not being able to stand up to and resist the culture of doping, for not being able to temper his own inner competitive drive, for not being the hero he was imagined to be. And the effect of the interview is to reposition Lance from being seen as a wrongdoer in need of our forgiveness to being a victim in need of our sympathies.
This is the game of image management – a game which, for the most part, Lance played well. Here’s what he did.
The Lance Armstrong Playbook of Image Management
- Sing a slippery “sorry”
Image management and public apologies are types of language games, albeit games with different objectives and rules of play. Where image management is concerned with preserving the value of a public reputation, public apologies are concerned with restoring equilibrium among offenders and the offended. The former is governed by strategic moves, the latter by ritual expectations. To understand the Lance Armstrong-Oprah interview as a game of image management is to understand that the “apologies” in the interview were a matter of strategic calculation, not expressions of genuine contrition. Thus, we get the slick-tongued non-apology apologies described earlier.
- Pin the tale on a scapegoat or three
Lance and Oprah were complicit in constructing a narrative that sought to justify Lance’s wrongdoing by portraying him as a tragic figure who fell victim to three convenient scapegoats:
- The cycling culture – a culture which he could not change or resist. He is a victim of his environment.
Oprah: You said to me earlier you don’t think it was possible to win without doping?
Armstrong: Not in that generation, and I’m not here to talk about others in that generation. It’s been well-documented. I didn’t invent the culture, but I didn’t try to stop the culture, and that’s my mistake, and that’s what I have to be sorry for, and that’s what something and the sport is now paying the price because of that. So I am sorry for that. I didn’t have access to anything else that nobody else did.
- His inner self (i.e., the competitor within) – an inner self which mutated into something fierce and unmanageable after his cancer diagnosis. He is a victim of his disease.
Oprah: Is that your nature – when someone says something you don’t like, you go on attack? Have you been like that your entire life – 10-years-old, 12-years-old and 14-years-old?
Armstrong: My entire life. Before my diagnosis I was a competitor but not a fierce competitor. When I was diagnosed, that turned me into a fighter. That was good. I took that ruthless win-at-all-costs attitude into cycling which was bad.
- His own myth – a myth which was created by the media and his fans, not by him. He is a victim of his public.
Oprah: Was it hard to live up to that picture that was created?
Armstrong: Impossible. Certainly I’m a flawed character, as I well know, and I couldn’t do that.
Oprah: But didn’t you help paint that picture?
Armstrong: Of course, I did. And a lot of people did. All the fault and all the blame here falls on me. But behind that picture and behind that story is momentum. Whether it’s fans or whether it’s the media, it just gets going. And I lost myself in all of that.
- Get disassociated
Throughout the interview, Lance continually describes himself as one who experienced the scandal in a disassociated way, as if he was never truly in control of and responsible for his actions but – as a man swept up – could only stand by observingly as the forces of environment, myth and a fiercely competitive inner self mercilessly tested his “flawed character.”
- It’s a situation he “viewed” filled with lies he “repeated” but (presumably) did not create:
“I viewed this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times, and as you said, it wasn’t as if I just said no and I moved off it.”
- It’s a “process” he “lived through,” not a life of deceit he purposefully created:
“And while I lived through this process, especially the last two years, one year, six months, two, three months, I know the truth. The truth isn’t what was out there. The truth isn’t what I said, and now it’s gone – this story was so perfect for so long. And I mean that, as I try to take myself out of the situation and I look at it.”
The overall of effect of these three moves allowed Lance to reframe himself, challenging the emerging narrative of him as a deceitful and menacing villain and offering in its a place a more tragic story of a man who could not live up to his own mythology, a flawed man who fought to win and failed himself (and his fans) along the way. Now, who doesn’t like that story?