Lance Armstrong was more than an athlete. Lance Armstrong was a legend. A superhero. A movement. Millions who had never watched a cycling event, found inspiration in the Armstrong gospel.
After remaining staunchly silent since the release of the damning USADA report in October, which labelled his conduct ‘The greatest heist sport has ever seen’, the announcement that Lance Armstrong will stage (and I emphasise the word STAGE) a prime time, tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey, has sports bloggers licking their lips and cycling power-brokers adding defence lawyers to their speed dial.
Regardless of where you stand on his conduct as an athlete, the question remains, what does the future hold for the Lance Armstrong brand? To pre-empt the whirlwind of opinion that will no doubt follow the interview, I wanted to get my two cents in early.
For the sake of discussion, let’s split the Armstrong into three distinct categories:
Lance Armstrong, Cyclist.
This brand is dead as a doornail. It resides on the scrapheap with MySpace, Mel Gibson and The Mini-Disc. In truth, Armstrong was never as popular amongst the hard core cycling fraternity as he was in the broader sporting audience. Dedicated cycling fans will never forgive Lance for his indiscretions, and to be honest most have already moved on.
Lance Armstrong, Sporting Great.
If not dead and buried, then very much on life support. Many of his ‘fans’ became infatuated with the romantic notion of Lance Armstrong after reading his bestselling books. Today, the suggestion that Armstrong, conqueror of one of the most gruelling and revered events in world sport, belongs alongside names like Ali, Jordan and Pele, is ludicrous. Only a brave pundit would still laud Lance for his achievements on the bike or mention him in the same breath as the all-time greats.
Lance Armstrong, Philanthropist and Cancer Crusader.
There may still be hope yet.
We only have to look at another fallen star in Tiger Woods to illustrate that the court of public opinion has a short memory. Tiger was dragged through the mud and back for his sins, but he has now been all but forgiven and is back in the public eye, even headlining Nike’s latest campaign. He is still one of the highest paid athletes on the planet, despite a hopelessly robotic ‘apology’ and the widespread belief that his team managed the situation woefully.
After remaining silent for the best part of three months, Team Armstrong has decided the time is right to speak. Rather than face a broadside from respected sports journalists or risk interrogation from a credible current affairs program, they have masterfully entrusted Oprah Winfrey, the first lady of US Television, with exclusive access.
Personally, I am expecting a carefully managed and sympathetic treatment, with Lance sombrely detailing the immense pressures which led to him signing his deal with the devil. A tearful apology will be followed by a hug from Oprah and widespread applause from a benevolent audience.
Perhaps each audience member will get a free bike? The fact that this interview made it to Oprah speaks volumes for the clout of Brand Armstrong.
Those expecting a warts and all confession are bound to be disappointed. I expect very few specifics to be revealed over the duration of the charade. However, for a large proportion of Armstrong ‘Fans’ this will suffice. It was never about the bike, it was so much bigger than that.
For the record, my tip is that Lance will then donate his appearance fee to his Livestrong Foundation. Another step towards ‘rehabilitation’ and forgiveness.
Others may pose the question, ‘What of the millions made in prize money and endorsements between 1998 and 2010 Mr Armstrong? Will you give these back?’
I don’t think those watching Oprah really care. The mass market audience is only interested in the philanthropist and cancer crusader. This question goes to the cyclist, a persona with little relevance to most viewers.
With all of this considered, I believe Brand Armstrong still has legs. It certainly won’t carry the same weight post-scandal, but his story, rich with acts of courage and kindness, still tugs at the heart strings. Whether tales of raising millions of dollars for cancer research, exchanging tender moments with sick kids during hospital visits or by being a source of inspiration with his own personal recovery, the idea of Lance Armstrong is what the public bought into and this is able to be salvaged.
People want to be inspired by the Lance Armstrong story. They want to be moved by his rise from the sick bed to the pinnacle of greatness and if history is anything to go by, the public are quick to forgive.
Oprah's interview with Lance Armstrong airs at 1pm Australian time today on the Discovery Channel.
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