Why are we not surprised at Lance Armstrong’s confession? Let's admit it – professional sports, the art of money making, have a deep thing going with misuse of power, hand in hand, and it has nothing to do with the (dis)respect for the common fan.
Armstrong's two-part interview with Oprah Winfrey was a quite an over-hyped media event. Armstrong appeared calm and even withdrawn in the first interview, which attracted 4.3 million viewers in the US for its two airings. For the second part, he used all the emotional trappings he could muster. Welling up with tears, he recalled feeling compelled to tell his 13-year-old son, Luke, the truth: “When this all really started, I saw my son defending me, and saying, ‘that’s not true, what you're saying about my dad is not true’. That's when I knew I had to tell him. And he’d never asked me. He’d never said, ‘Dad is this true?’ He trusted me... at that point, I decided it was out of control and I had to have a talk with him here over the holidays.”
So much has been speculated and written about Oprah’s interview with the former American professional road racing cyclist. I caught up with both parts of the interview on YouTube. I always though Armstrong’s story was one of the most incredible and motivational stories ever, and the only other athlete that comes close to him, is perhaps, is Michael Phelps, the swimmer.
But alas, something did change after I saw Armstrong’s interview online. Watching the saga unfold just reminds me of the Hansie Cronje incident – how Hansie was in the court room, admitted he was guilty of taking bribes and fixing matches and the devil made him do it.
But I was not surprised, only left feeling betrayed, like only we, of a scam-ridden country, can feel when we see our sport stars revealing their true colours; that they are after all human and can give in to temptations.
I remember not long ago an Indian sporting demi-god broke down on prime time TV. As the story goes, after the interview, he turned to his PR man and mumbled, while wiping the remnants of the tears, “Was it ok?”
Back to Armstrong. His interviews seem to have been a well-orchestrated use of both cancer and family in an effort to ease him off the hook. According to Chris Rattue of ‘The New Zealand Herald’, “He appeared like a motorist who had been caught doing 160 in a 100 zone, and pleaded he was doing only 158. Then he confessed to using old windscreen wipers and begged for mercy on that score.”
It is not that the interviews are unlikely to persuade most people away from their original views, that as long as sports will stay on Earth, so will the scandals. So, the game must go on. Admittedly, drugs in sports is a dirty, complex issue, with grey areas too numerous to deal with, but some of us will never be able to see a problem with them, although rules are rules and the basis of sporting contests. Whatever our attitude to performance-enhancing drugs is, Armstrong remains a cheat.
As was the case with Tiger Woods and his infidelity scandal of 2009. And redemption, particularly for the brand Woods was swift and ruthless. In the days and months after the ace golfer’s admission of infidelity, companies literally yanked the red carpet from under his feet. Accenture, AT&T, Gatorade and General Motors completely ended their sponsorship deals, while Gillette suspended advertising featuring Woods.TAG Heuer dropped Woods from advertising in December 2009 and never revived it when the contract expired in August 2011.Even the press, which has already done irrevocable damage to his reputation, carried on the sentence – Golf Digest suspended Woods’ monthly column beginning with the February 2010 issue. According to a December 2009 study, the shareholder loss caused by Woods’ affairs is estimated to be between $5 billion and $12 billion.
So, sports stars as brands do feel the pinch of scandals? Of course! Even Armstrong – the god of cycling – does not remain unscathed. Soon after the US Anti-Doping Agency revealed what it called “overwhelming” evidence of Armstrong's involvement as a professional cyclist in “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme”, Nike, after initially standing by him, dropped him for what it called “seemingly insurmountable evidence” that he participated in doping. On the same day, mere hours later, brewery giant Anheuser-Busch announced it will let Armstrong’s contract expire at the end of the year. The American Cancer Society, on the other hand, said only that it would continue to collaborate with Livestrong.
A question that will niggle all who have watched Armstrong’s interview is why he chose a Winfrey show to open the cupboard for his skeletons to fall out in public? The key word is public. As David Rowe, Professor of Cultural Research at the University Western Sydney writes in his blog: “...Armstrong’s confession reveals more than just his personal ethical frailty. It tells us something much more profound about our relationship with the media, sportspeople and the culture of celebrity”.
According to Rowe, “televised celebrity confessions such as Armstrong’s have become staples of contemporary public culture. When they involve sportspeople, especially male, they can temporarily dominate the media landscape”.
This is because sportsmen are global animals, celebrities recognised far and wide. Rowe calls it “attention economy”, where celebrities and their lives are valuable for a host of interests. Media outlets receive effortlessly compelling copy and audience opportunities, social media are set abuzz with outrage and rumour, pundits dispense wisdom and speculation, moral entrepreneurs find new sharpening tools for axes, and workplaces, living rooms and pubs have ready-made conversational common ground, he says.
And who better than Oprah Winfrey – a global celebrity herself – to come crying with a confession? With her, it’s a last desperate attempt to come clear yet cushion the damage of the confession for Armstrong, who stands accused of lying, shamming and commanding a fake position at the top for so long. Armstrong’s televised fall from grace is also an attempt at remaining a celebrity, yet drawing on the public sentiment that, “Hey! Celebrities too, are after all human.”
Why, even Tiger Woods did it. His whole scripted apology for serial infidelity in February 2010 – the scandal was called by the BBC no other “story with bigger news impact” and US news organisations voted it 2010 “Sports Story of the Year” – was televised, an effort of a demigod in sports to unburden his guilty, to go with his hands folded and thus in a back-handed way, garner admiration, like he has always been used to. It's no less than the last stand at transparency, an effort to say, “Look, I have soiled myself. But then I have the guts to admit it, despite my stature”.
As far as Armstrong is concerned, there are also speculations that he has been “suitably compensated” for the irrevocable damage to his career by baring it all on the Winfrey show.
So don’t be afraid to call ‘Oprah meets Lance’ a corporate marriage. It is, as Rattue says, his self-serving, true contrition-free answers were groomed, damage-limitation responses.