Based on all the information accessed from the Internet and other news sources, the most watched media event over the past week was not the inauguration of United States President Barack Obama, rather it was the two-part Oprah Winfrey worldwide televised interview with disgraced American cyclist Lance Armstrong.
According to Nielsen estimates, a total of 4.3 million tuned in to part one of the interview last Thursday evening, comprising 3.2 for the first showing and an additional 1.1 for a repeat at 10:30 pm. You can bet that the other networks were green with envy. Not only did Oprah's flagging network (OWN) receive a desperately needed boost both in terms of audience and advertising support, but from feedback, so too her credentials as an interviewer.
Sure she is no Piers Morgan or Bryant Charles Gumbel, but who is? In fact, Oprah claimed that this was her best interview, and while the number of viewers did not exceed others done previously, especially those with Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, she definitely scored a hit by securing Armstrong and certainly deserved an A+ for effort. Besides arming herself with hundreds of questions, she admitted preparing for the exercise like she would for a university post-graduate examination.
Assuming this to be so, I was at a loss to understand how she failed to advance some follow-up questions that viewers familiar with the issue would want to be answered, or at least asked.
Case in point: Armstrong claimed that he had promised his ex-wife that he would no longer use performance-enhancing substances following his 2009 comeback. However, scientific evidence from his blood samples taken in 2009 and 2010 indicate otherwise. These samples show changes in his blood parameters from the start of the season to the start of the Tour de France. In fact, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has affirmed that the likelihood of Armstrong's blood values from the 2009 and 2010 competitions occurring naturally "is less than one in a million and build a compelling argument consistent with blood doping".
USADA and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) took 38 blood samples from him between Oct 16, 2008 and April 30, 2012 as part of their "blood passport" testing system. If Armstrong did not dope, then why were his blood value levels deemed positive?
If I were to believe that Oprah prepared for this interview as much as she said, and I do believe that she did, why on earth would she not ask him to comment on that scientific evidence? That, to me, best explains why Armstrong was more comfortable choosing Oprah on whom to 'unburden' himself rather than a Bryant Gumbel. It was a clever and calculated move, and all the evidence now points to his being a master manipulator.
Undoubtedly, Oprah's style of interviewing is less intimidating than Gumbel's and Piers Morgan's, and although she did ask some prickly questions and uncharacteristically pressed Armstrong at times, basically she maintains what one writer described as a "confession-friendly environment".
She did the same in her interview with Marion Jones, another drug cheat who maintained throughout that she was completely unaware that her handlers were doping her. Nor did she grill Michael Jackson when she interviewed that pop star which attracted an even larger television audience than Houston's interview. It appeared to work for these other mega stars, given the sympathetic responses from large sections of the public.
Armstrong would have known this. In an argument supportive of her interviewing style during the build-up period, she claimed that she was not in the business of passing judgement, rather that she poses probing questions and leaves her audiences to draw their own conclusions.
Regrettably for Armstrong, public response to the interview suggests that it was a PR disaster. Besides a less than convincing performance from the public perspective, the disgraced cyclist faces mounting legal challenges. There are indications that he was hoping for a long shot at redemption. That, at the very least, his life ban would be reduced eventually, thereby paving the way for his re-emergence on the sporting circuit, possibly the triathlon. He suggested as much when he opined to being unfairly treated by the anti-doping agencies. He contended that others who had confessed had their sentences reduced while he was saddled with a 'death sentence'. The lifetime ban is the maximum sanction imposed.
Interestingly, WADA's head, John Fahey, said his organisation would not object to a reduction of Armstrong's life sanction to a term of years. But the rider is that the reduction could only take place if the cyclist were to give substantial information about drug suppliers, corrupt officials and other drug cheats. "He needs to do it properly, not just for show business," said Fahey.
So far, it seems that this is unlikely. Armstrong rejected such an offer made just weeks ago by the USADA. "He chose Oprah instead of giving evidence under oath and to be cross-examined," Farley said.
But certainly no one can fault Oprah for Armstrong's mounting problems that may have been extenuated by this interview. OWN has been given a new lease on life and so has her mega-star image, which suffered from OWN's unspectacular appearance in the media firmament. So when she thanked him, in closing off the second part of the interview, for allowing her the opportunity, her gratitude would have been entirely believable and likely influenced what seemed to be her priest-like absolution, delivered as what she considered the moral of the story, that "the truth shall make you free".
Universal forgiveness will be a lot harder and something that Armstrong has to go a much longer way to earn. Not only has the entire saga been bad for him, but it is a disaster for sport in general. Regrettably, once again the achievements of other mega stars like Usain Bolt are being called into question as possibly dope-induced.
Several of the comments and tweets stemming from stories flowing from the cyclist's public confession express reservations about the authenticity of Bolt's performances. Carl Lewis must be happy. The one blessing to have emerged, hopefully, is that the anti-doping programme and the work of our own Jamaica Anti-Doping Agency (JADA) may have acquired some more much needed respectability. It is evident from all of this that doping is not only bad for health but has the potential of condemning those who are caught to the scrap heap of history.