by Neil Browne
Controlling the Narrative
With a documentary out and a couple of damning books on the shelf, Lance Armstrong has done what he's good at – going on the offensive.
I don't mean like the “good old days” in the early 2000s when he would intimidate his opponents with lawsuits, spreading lies about them, or doing his best to make sure they couldn't earn a living riding a bike. No – this Armstrong Version 2.0 is a gentler, kinder model – but just as manipulative.
“The Wheelman – Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever” can be summarized as such: Armstrong was an asshole and he surrounded himself with assholes, chamois sniffers, and enablers. However, the lie was too big and it was always a matter of time before he pissed off the wrong person with nothing to lose. The end.
The Armstrong Lie documentary is in theaters and doesn't paint a good picture of the disgraced pro either. With more lawsuits piling up it was time for him to break radio silence.
He did an interview on CyclingNews that came with restrictions: no video and no details which he claims he will share with WADA, the UCI, or a Truth and Reconciliation process at a later date. While the interviewer was able to ask questions, Armstrong, once again, set the terms and used it to his advantage.
This is not to say that the interview portrays Armstrong in a positive light, however, it does give him the opportunity to bang the “I wasn't the only one cheating” and “level playing field” gong over and over. Some journalists turned down overtures from the Armstrong camp for an interview because they saw it for what it was – an opportunity for Armstrong to try and control the narrative.
Controlling the narrative or “getting in front of the story” is one of the first things done in crisis management and that's where Armstrong lives. He can't wash away the fact he was a bully – he admits to that. Instead you try and shape it into something else and that's what he's doing.
Armstrong's next stop was with BBC's World Service's Newshour program. Basically another opportunity for him to state that cycling hasn't been served with an investigation going back 15 years. However, Lance forgets that there's strong biological evidence that he was using PEDS in his 2009 and 2010 Tour de France comeback. If you think those years were clean I got a bridge in New York I want to sell you.
Be assured Armstrong isn't going to walk into a Truth and Reconciliation meeting with a caseload of files and give up names for nothing. He has an end game in mind and that's to return to competition. Without some deal that allows him to start cycling or triathlon or whatever, he isn't going to give up squat. Armstrong is motivated by one thing and one thing only – self-preservation and how a situation can be used to his advantage. To think he's interested in cleaning up cycling for the sake of cycling is naïve. He wants quid pro quo – I give you something, now you need to give me something back. What he wants is to be able to return to competition.
You may be wondering, why does he want to return to competitive sports at 42 years of age? It's not like he's going to join a WorldTour team. No - it's all about the money.
You don't need to look any further than other disgraced professional athletes. They do the crime, serve the time - and all the while the fans are outraged by the behavior of their star athlete. However, once their time is served they return to their sport and the sponsorships return. Right now, Armstrong could use some sponsorship love. You are sadly mistaken if you don't think that Armstrong could get himself into an IronMan event (if his lifetime ban is repealed) and find a full sponsorship ride.
Sure it will be a slow start, but once Armstrong gets his name in the public and is competing as an “example of a clean athlete” the money will start. Even if he competes for a couple of years, every race gives him the opportunity to have a platform to repeat, much like his now infamous “Most Tested Athlete in the World” phrase, that doping was a level playing field and he was just a cog in a corrupt system.
He's smart enough to parlay his appearances into bigger deals. Yes, he'll never amass the same wealth he had after he won his seventh Tour de France title, but it's a start back into normalcy of making appearances and conducting training camps for fan boys. I'm sure these are just tip of the iceberg ideas and his advisors have a long-term strategy planned out.
This past Sunday, Armstrong met with Emma O'Reilly, his former U.S Postal soigneur and one of the first to break ranks to say Armstrong was cheating. The reason for the meeting was for Lance to say he was sorry to Emma, but he also dropped a few warning shots to those who he now considers his enemy – the UCI.
In the sit down interview Armstrong tells the Daily Mail reporter accompanying O'Reilly that the backdated prescription was former UCI president Hein Verbruggen's idea. Hey Verbruggen – you hear that? That's the bus Lance is throwing you under. I'm sure the Texan has some other salacious tid-bits in his back pocket. For those of us who follow the sport we already had our suspicions about how the UCI was working hand in glove with the U.S. Postal Service team to keep the doping program on the down-low. It looks like this will now be aired in public.
So what's next? Johan Bruyneel is scheduled to go before USADA in London in December. My money is that he'll back up Armstrong's claim that the UCI took the lead in covering up doping practices and just like Lance, the Belgian was just working within the system that was already in place when he got there. Doping was rampant and this was the only way for the U.S. Postal Service team to compete.
When it is all said and done with USADA or when the UCI's Truth and Reconciliation committee concludes, the question will remain - was Lance Armstrong unfairly prosecuted?
This is such a polarizing topic. He received the equivalent of the death sentence, others got by with six-month suspensions during the off-season, others retired with no consequences, and one current rider admitted to doping in his past with no consequences taken at all.
I'm of the opinion Armstrong’s punishment suits the crime. Yes, he took as much PEDs as the others (maybe less) but he took that extra step off the bike to ensure lives were ruined. Some of those actions aren't in the distant past. It wasn't that long ago that Tyler Hamilton felt Armstrong physically intimidated him in the upscale Aspen restaurant Cache Cache.
It was just a couple of years ago that in a phone call conversation he told someone that he wanted to punch me in the throat. I'm guessing he didn't like what I had written about him. But heck, maybe some intense therapy sessions have made him realize the errors of his ways and he's a changed man...
Armstrong has a long history of intimidation – physical or legal. Now he's changed his tack and is working a different angle. But peel away the layers it's the same strategy, just with a better polish - shape the narrative with the help of the naïve media. Time will tell if it was a shrewd plan or it blew up in his face.
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