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No absolution if confession comes with conditions

Date

Richard Hinds

I AM probably supposed to say it was all terribly sad. That watching a once-revered athlete force to confess his sins before millions of viewers was a gut-wrenching spectacle. It was not.

It was wretched, pathetic and, I'll admit - in the spirit of the great truth-teller Lance - sometimes bloody funny. Such as when Armstrong said he had looked up the word ''cheat'' in the dictionary and decided he was OK. Tiger Woods has borrowed Lance's dictionary in the hope it says he wasn't cheating either.

Or when Armstrong insisted: ''I'm going to tell you what's the truth and what's not true …'' This from a man who is such an inveterate liar that, during 90 minutes of ''candid confession'', you started to wonder if he might have been clean after all.

''I deserve this,'' Armstrong said. But, of course, he had far worse coming than a relatively cosy chat with an old buddy, hand-picked for her knack of trading public absolution for ratings. That Armstrong could still appear slightly offended by elements of Oprah's lukewarm grilling said as much about his sociopathic nature as it did about his tickled-with-a-feather ordeal.

Thus, it was Armstrong's chilling demeanour - rather than the ''Yes, yes, yes, yes'' confession - that was most revealing. Here was the disgraced champion in all his cold, calculated glory. A man with such callous disregard for others, you would not be surprised if he requested chianti and fava beans in the green room.

We did not need Armstrong to shed crocodile tears - body language does not necessarily betray a person's genuine emotion - but, because Armstrong had stage-managed his own appearance in Oprah's People's Court, he had to reveal his wounds. If he could not show genuine pain and contrition under such anodyne circumstances, how could we believe he ever would?

Why must Armstrong bleed? Because his confession is only worthwhile if it utterly destroys his reputation and has a profound emotional impact. The power of the confession is in proportion to how greatly he suffers. Just as the power he had to ruin others' lives was in proportion to the belief others invested in his lies.

Armstrong was, indeed, sorry. Sorry he had been caught. He admitted as much when lamenting the comeback that accelerated the chain of events leading to his downfall. ''Otherwise, I wouldn't be here.''

There was a string of admissions to things we already knew. And, yes, it was shocking hearing the confession from the mouth of a man who had been so brutal in his denials, rather than reading them in a drug agencies report. It was engrossing to see him faced with the video of the Tour de France victory speech in which he taunted his accusers. But, given the Spanish Inquisition did not have to exert as much force to gain a confession, his words of regret seemed hollow rather than heartfelt.

There were also obfuscations - aided by Oprah's helpful, oft-repeated suggestion that ''you had to do it to compete''. Most notably, there were attempts to separate the ''cocky, arrogant, jerk self'' who would do anything to win from Real Lance; the well-meaning guy with the fierce competitive streak who was somehow swept along by the tide of cheating.

Yet, despite the mountain of evidence piled upon him, Armstrong revealed himself most flagrantly when he insisted he had not called one of his accusers, Betsy Andreu, fat. Yes, he had harassed, vilified and persecuted. But when Lance is ruining someone's life, he treats them like a lady.

Armstrong might even claim some kind of honour from his unwillingness to implicate others. But, as with his often mealy mouthed and sometimes irritated responses to questions about the details of his doping, that only made his admissions seem half-baked. A man used to controlling his world had come to say his bit the way he wanted to say it. Not even Oprah's tepid interrogation was completely tolerable.

As Armstrong was forced to admit to the self-evident facts, while splitting the odd hair, you could not help wonder what his army of denialists were thinking. The servile wretches who had sent vile profanity-laden emails to those who had dared air the slightest reservation about the legitimacy of his Tour de France wins.

In conscience, they should have been more disgusted than anyone. Or was their pride so great they could not acknowledge they had been suckered by one of the world's great con artists?

A suitable punishment? Go to your local library and move It's Not About The Bike to the fiction section, where it belongs.

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