How to find the truth in Lance Armstrong's interview with Oprah

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Lance Armstrong, stripped of his seven Tour de France titles due to allegations of using performance enhancing drugs and lying again and again about it, was expected to finally confess his drug use. He sat down with Oprah Winfrey Monday for an interview scheduled to air on her network on Thursday night.  Now, Oprah has revealed that Armstrong didn’t “come clean” in the way she had hoped or expected he might.

There is, in fact, a way to know whether Armstrong is finally telling the real and complete truth about his use of drugs.  He would have to admit it, first of all.  But, then, he would have to tell us why.  

In psychological mysteries like the one in which Armstrong is the lead character, what happened is important, but why it happened is much more important.


Why did Armstrong break the rules of his sport?  Why did he deny the charges against him for decades? Why did he disparage those who tried to reveal the facts about him and international cycling.

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If you listen to or watch Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah and don’t come away satisfied that you understand, at the deepest level of your heart, why Armstrong became a fraud, racing against truth to capture trophies and accolades and fame and money that were not rightfully his, then—even if he documents every performance enhancing drug he ever took and when—he will have confessed nothing very important.

In cases like this one, authentic answers to the question why are always intensely personal, by the way.  They relate to the confessor’s life story—and usually very early chapters.  So, no amount of finger-pointing at other athletes or at cycling officials should pass for the truth coming from Lance Armstrong.  Such words would have no power to reach past your mind, to your heart.  They would not inspire real empathy and understanding, because they wouldn’t reveal where and how Armstrong himself is actually weak and broken and flawed—and how he got that way.

Only if Armstrong were to tell us that, in a way that took our breath away and answered every question one could ever ask of him, about why his life became a fraud, could a good listener really be satisfied that he or she had heard the truth.

If Armstrong, for example, in tears, were to say (and I am making all this up), that he had been the victim of brutality as a child, that his family were posers who looked good in public and became monsters in private, that they set the stage for him believing that everyone is fraudulent and that trying to have integrity is folly, then he would have my attention and my empathy.

If Armstrong were to tell us (again, I am making all this up) that he had been bullied relentlessly as a kid and had thought of suicide and that being strong and undefeatable came to mean everything to him—that racing through life wearing the mask of success and invulnerability seemed like his only option—then he would have my attention and my empathy.

Neither answer to the question about why he did what he did would excuse Armstrong.  But it would explain him.  And when people explain themselves in ways that speak to their human weaknesses and their pain and their fears getting the best of them, they are speaking the language of truth and they are testifying to a newfound respect for it.  And only a person with a heart of stone would fail to feel the power in that.

Nothing less should be taken as a meaningful confession by Armstrong.  And nothing less will be wind at his back in the journey through life ahead.