Editorial: Armstrong tour de apology can’t escape lies

Oprah Winfrey interviews cyclist Lance Armstrong in Austin on Monday. The interview will air Thursday and Friday nights on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Lance Armstrong doesn’t do anything halfway. Cycling, cancer-fighting, cheating, lying — he attacks all the same way, with a single-minded focus that obliterates obstacles, ignores rules and trounces opposition. All, ultimately, for the greater good of Lance.

So why would anyone believe that his belated admission to using performance-enhancing drugs has an ounce of sincerity? Perhaps he’ll turn in an Oscar-worthy performance when his interview with Oprah Winfrey airs Thursday and Friday nights. But Armstrong’s record overrides his conveniently timed words — or at least it should — and that record says his confession is nothing more than another self-centered ploy.

Armstrong didn’t just lie. He is a world-class liar. He carried on a decade-long deception that made him a seven-time Tour de France champion with a worldwide brand.

He didn’t just cheat. His team “ran the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program” that cycling had ever seen, according to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

He didn’t just refute his critics. He remorselessly smeared them. He vilified anyone, whether friend or underling, who refused to continue lying for him. When a young woman who had been his team’s aide and masseuse came clean to the author of a damning book on doping, Armstrong sued her along with TheSunday Times of London, which published book excerpts.

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Now he’s confessing, not as an act of contrition, but because he has no other way to dig out from a scandal that demolished his image, wrecked his income, tarnished his cancer charity and left him barred from competition.

Last year, USADA gave Armstrong an opportunity to join fellow cyclists in telling the truth and, in its words, “be part of the solution.” He refused. Only when confronted with overwhelming evidence, stripped of his titles and banned for life from his sport did he admit his complicity.

Armstrong went to Winfrey this week because he wants something: a chance to salvage some scraps of his reputation and a path back into competition.

He won’t get either quickly. The best Armstrong can hope for is a reduction of his lifetime ban to eight years. That’s a long wait for a 41-year-old aspiring triathlete. And to get that, Armstrong might have to be willing to tell USADA how he beat its system and implicate others.

Public forgiveness could be another story. Armstrong built up considerable goodwill by raising millions of dollars for Livestrong, the charity he founded. America is the land of second chances, and apologies plus the passage of time have worked magic for other high-profile liars. Given Armstrong’s determination, he’ll no doubt write himself another chapter.

But he’s no more likely to succeed in airbrushing history than Barry Bonds, an epic star and epic liar denied entry to the baseball Hall of Fame. Records count, but character counts for more, and in that department Armstrong, like other cheaters, is sorely lacking.

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Whatever the sport, the principles are the same: Using performance-enhancing drugs is cheating. “Everybody does it” is no more an excuse for professional athletes than it is for teenagers. No honest athlete should be put in the position of having to cheat to compete.

The public won’t know until later this week exactly what Armstrong told Winfrey. Was he contrite? Did he go deep? Or did he offer what Watergate figure John Ehrlichman memorably called a “modified limited hangout”?

It really doesn’t matter.

Whatever he said, no one should mistake it for anything other than self-serving truth, admitted only after lies no longer worked.