Armstrong underestimates the opposition

Sportspeople as experienced as Lance Armstrong should never underestimate the opposition, yet the disgraced American cyclist and his advisors did just that ahead of last week’s sensational interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, for Armstrong has made something of a habit of it. Even after being exposed, Armstrong showed scant respect for those who doggedly pursued him and refused to accept his repeated denials of doping. Instead he attempted to destroy them, allegedly labeling the whistle-blowing wife of a team-mate a “whore” and issuing threats and lawsuits as he went. 

The Sunday Times’ sportswriter David Walsh was Armstrong’s most ardent and relentless accuser, and deserves to be celebrated by every journalist on the planet for the way he stood up for his story, all the while standing up to one of the biggest names in world sport. Armstrong presented himself as a hero to cancer sufferers as well as an athlete beyond reproach, yet his defensiveness in interviews, aggressive answers to awkward questions and name-calling (“troll” was his favoured word for Walsh, usually accompanied by profanity) were not the responses of an innocent man. 

One of The Emilia Group’s areas of expertise is crisis communications and although it’s an area that corporations tend to focus more on than athletes and sports organisations, those with sponsorships, funding and reputations to lose in sport would do well to look at Armstrong as a reminder that preparing for the worst is always sensible - especially if you have something very big to hide.

It’s not clear what Armstrong thought he was going to gain from the Oprah interview, given that the damage to his reputation became largely irrepairable the moment USANA’s mind-blowing report on his (and his team’s) doping landed on newsdesks around the world. Having committed to the questionable PR tactic of talking to Oprah -  presumably in the hope that he win the public over or gain some sympathy for his plight - Armstrong then prepared poorly and showed little obvious sign of remorse or contrition.

An example of this was when Winfrey asked him if he felt he ought to apologise to Walsh, whom he had villified both professionally and personally (according to Walsh, Armstrong stooped as low as to openly criticise Walsh’s reaction to losing his 12-year-old son). “Do you owe David Walsh an apology, who for 13 years has pursued this story, who wrote for The Sunday Times, who has now written books about your story and about this entire process?” asked Winfrey. There was a long pause before Armstrong said, somewhat unconvincingly, “I’d apologise to David.” Not “Yes of course”; not even the word “sorry”, just a hypothetical and therefore non-committal “I would...”

It’s not clear what Armstrong was expecting from Winfrey - perhaps a teary cuddle and some soft-balled questions - but what he got was a world class grilling that often left him looking flustered and bounced into evasive answers. In Winfrey’s words, she prepared “like I was studying for a test” and, like Walsh before her, undid Armstrong through persistence and attention to detail.

Harry J Enten recently cited some interesting research in his Guardian blog which bears out the suspicion that Armstrong has only managed to hurt his own standing even more by opting to do the interview. In October 2012, at the height of the revelations about Armstrong, 48% of Americans told pollsters that he should not get credit for any of his career accomplishments - including a bronze Olympic medal and seven Tour de France winner’s medals. By early January 2012, pre-Oprah that figure had fallen to 37% showing that the public were easing up slightly.  However the first post-Oprah polls showed that only 21% of Americans polled thought Armstrong could restore his reputation. 

In a further poll, again unearthed by Enten, only 17% of those polled thought that Armstrong was being truthful in his answers to Oprah. That cynicism will only increase as the news cycle rumbles on and more and more people around the world become familiar with both his crimes against sport and the way Armstrong behaved to those who defied him while he denied.

For a man who loved winning so much that he was willing to set aside morality, fairness, honesty and decency, Armstrong sure looks like a loser now.

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