Lance Armstrong: too cool for victimhood

For many, the biggest problem with ‘cold-hearted’ Armstrong’s Oprah interview was his failure to let it all hang out.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

If Lance Armstrong thought his much-hyped interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which he finally confessed to taking performance enhancing drugs, would satisfy his army of detractors, he couldn’t have been more mistaken. The drug-taking admission was never going to be enough. Nor was the pained acknowledgement that he had damaged quite a few people’s lives over the past 13 years. In fact, Armstrong could have danced around/melted down on the sofa, as Tom Cruise once did on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and still his legion of critics would have wanted something more. Armstrong, you see, just hasn’t done enough to satisfy his antagonists yet.

It’s difficult to know, however, precisely what enough would be. Ostensibly, Armstrong’s detractors suggest that he chose the wrong forum to publicly confess to his pharmaceutically inspired past. Instead of chatting to Oprah, he should have been giving his testimony under oath to the relevant sports bodies, in this case the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the International Cycling Union’s (UCI) independent commission. By opting for Oprah over a quasi-court, Armstrong opted for an easy way out. ‘Too little, too late’, as one headline put it.

But there’s more to this pervasive sense of frustration than Armstrong’s reluctance to prostrate himself before sport’s quasi-legal court systems. After all, that will most probably still happen. No, what really seems to have informed some people’s dissatisfaction with the Oprah interview was Armstrong’s unwillingness to let it all hang out. They had come to see a man broken, unable anymore to keep his thoughts and feelings walled up. But what they saw was someone still very much together, marshalling his interior life with as much authority as he had once dominated the peloton.

And, for many, this was the problem; Armstrong was violating the strictures of confessional culture. He was not bearing all, he was not weeping and seeping with all the emotional incontinence of the wannabe redeemed. A brief wobble when talking about his kids aside, he kept his emotions in check.

This is why throughout the reams of coverage the interview has received, a single adjectival theme has been identifiable: Armstrong’s coldness, be it his ‘cold exterior’ or his ‘cold heart’. In other words, rather than giving off emotional heat, like some Latin stereotype, he appeared too calculating, too in control. As one critic put it, this made Armstrong ‘wholly unconvincing as a victim. He is too chiselled, his eyes too cold and quartz-like, face too composed, legs too smugly crossed. He said that he saw the anger and disappointment and betrayal in people, but he didn’t look as if he felt it. His body language was always at odds with his words.’

David Walsh, Armstrong’s journalistic nemesis, echoed this criticism during a Saturday morning radio interview. In Armstrong’s performance, he said, you could see someone who knew he ought to be contrite, but was emotionally incapable of expressing it. Armstrong presented a tragedy of intellect over feeling, a hollow victory for reason over emotion. Or as the New York Times put it: ‘He may have been nervous, but he didn’t look uncomfortable. Armstrong appeared as reasoned and dispassionate telling the truth as he did all those years that he so fluently and convincingly spun a lie.’ That is, Armstrong’s composure, his determination to keep his emotions in check, violated the confessional ritual; it rendered him, once again, suspect.

Others turned their frustration with Armstrong’s lack of emoting into an indictment of his character. Writing in The Times, Simon Barnes complained: ‘Armstrong came over as cold and unrepentant, a man who did a series of pretty unpleasant things because he wanted to. He lacked humility, he lacked contrition, he lacked easy humanity.’ Elsewhere, a Canadian commentator went even further: ‘[Armstrong] wasn’t remorseful. He wasn’t empathetic. In fact, he wasn’t even human. Or humane…. [He is] a textbook definition of a sociopath.’

What such commentary reveals is that Armstrong’s problem was not really the forum in which he confessed. It was not even his failure to name others who might have been complicit in his doping success, be they his team managers or his UCI bosses. Rather, what really stuck in his detractor’s craw, was his anachronistic desire not spill out his emotions in public. He did not let himself go; he did not sacrifice his self-control at the altar of ’emotional honesty’. Instead of giving himself up, he remained in control, a private individual presenting a public face. Instead of turning his whole person, interior life and all, into public property, he retained ownership of it.

And that did not help Armstrong in the eyes of his antagonists. For in this all-too-confessional age, in which revealing all is a mark of virtue, keeping hold of oneself, not breaking down in public, appears as vice. It marks you out as a cold fish, a potential sociopath, someone who ought to be regarded with suspicion. In the words of the contemporary snooper’s mantra, if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear. As Armstrong is currently discovering, however, if you want to sustain a degree of privacy, you’ve got everything to fear. It ought to be warning to us all: let it all hang out, or else.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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