Paul Lewis on sport
Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Cheeky bid to cheat fate

Lance Armstrong confesses to doping to Oprah Winfrey.  Photo / AP
Lance Armstrong confesses to doping to Oprah Winfrey. Photo / AP

There's a spectacular new case study coming for the public relations text books and for all sports bodies and sportspeople: the rehabilitation of Lance Armstrong.

Armstrong's interview by Oprah Winfrey smelled, stank, of a high-end public relations strategy designed to transform Armstrong from cheat, liar, bully and destroyer of other people's lives into penitent, honest, trustworthy Lance - cleansed to his little pedal-pushing tootsies in the confessional of public opinion.

First there were the leaks:

• Leak 1: The New York Times told us Armstrong had been petitioning USADA about reducing his lifetime ban.
• Leak 2: Lance would go on Oprah.
• Leak 3: He'd confess to using performance-enhancing drugs.
• Leak 4: A tearful Armstrong "apologises" to staff at Livestrong, his cancer charity.
• Leak 5: Oprah teases us with titbits from the interview.

Then came the interview itself. Two days of it. The words "emotional" and "heartfelt" made appearances even before the broadcast. We also heard that he'd consider testifying against cyclists and/or officials from the bad old days.

It's the water-on-rock strategy of leaks. Bite-sized positioning, with Armstrong manouevring himself more and more into a place where public sympathy may begin to accumulate round him; his actions and words all geared towards a strategy of contrition and honesty.

Winfrey was the perfect vehicle. Beloved in the US and a warm mixture of news, female nurturing and entertainment, Oprah is as welcome in US homes as Mom's apple pie.

Before the Oprah interview, there was some naive speculation about the reasons Armstrong was putting himself forward and in jeopardy. Some said he risked a jail sentence for perjuring himself in previous on-the-record denials. Others said he wanted to get his life ban cut so he could re-jig his career as a triathlon exponent; so he could earn a new living that way.

Armstrong has a far bigger target in his sights, over time. They love a reformed soul, a born-again in the US. Make no mistake, that's what Armstrong and his handlers are doing. He's being born again; he's shedding his former skin like the iconic American reptile, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, which shucks its skin when it grows.

Why? Politics is one avenue. He has been touted before as a political possibility, admittedly in his pre-drugs heyday - but he still has the presence, the force of personality, the aura to do well in that sphere once the slate has been cleaned.

He has rubbed shoulders with world leaders and presidents, particularly one President Bush. He has been in the celebrity coterie which included one-time fiancee and singer Cheryl Crow; he called Bono a friend. His speed dial includes some of the best-known names on the planet.

The deals are lining up to be done. If I deliver this crook to you, what do I get in return?

If I give you the means to deliver a lightning bolt to the slippery souls within (world cycling body) UCI who may have helped sell their sport to the devil, what's in it for me?

If I help you clean out the Augean stables of world cycling, can you allow me to slip through this side door?

Just like the Augean stables - home to 3000 oxen and not cleaned for 30 years - Armstrong's task looks Herculean. In fact, it was Hercules, in legend, who cleaned the stables by diverting two rivers through them.

That's what Armstrong's lawyers and PR people are doing; they have plotted a course to help the river of public opinion wash Armstrong clean or, if not clean, to remove most of the stains.

They have one, great, helpful thing going for them - he has escaped a criminal charge. There is a statute of limitations which allows him to escape perjury charges.

The civil suits coming against him - including that of Floyd Landis which may now be joined by the US Justice Department - will grievously wound him; some estimates say it could cost up to US$60 million. But Armstrong's legals will have done the maths and figure out-of-court settlements could make his redemption sustainable. It just takes money. Armstrong is worth US$100m.

The lawsuits, damages and legal costs will hurt him, sure, but not as much as the Armstrong brand becoming buried - as it was pre-Oprah - under the consistent barrage of descriptions of him as a drugs cheat.

This way, he gets to write a new ending to his story. This way, he can get back to raising big money for Livestrong. The cancer foundation is a powerful weapon; it raises about US$50m a year for cancer support and is the basis of the man's good works. It is also the way to continue to access the well of public opinion.

Never mind that his former personal assistant Mike Anderson (now resident in New Zealand to escape, he says, the Armstrong influence) told the Daily Mail in September that "at one Livestrong event where he had to speak, I heard him mutter under his breath: 'I hate these f***ing things'."

Armstrong can get back on the after-dinner speaking circuit, charging celebrity fees; he can, yes, get on the triathlon circuit even though the authorities say the smallest ban he could expect would be eight years - meaning he'd be 49, not a great age for an elite triathlon career. Sponsors would return. He could write a book; fund a movie about cycling's dark days, the trials and tribulations; he could flick to his phone and peruse the names of the US power brokers he knows, corporate and political.

The end of his life as a Tour de France winner could signal the birth of his life as a redeemed public figure, purged of his misdeeds and the man who, more than any other, perhaps, cleaned up the dank, drugs-ridden pond of world cycling.

That's why he won't do what WADA and USADA want and confess under oath, rather than to a talk show host.

Funny old world, isn't it?

- Herald on Sunday

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