The Hollywood hiccup arrived in the final frames. Lance Armstrong's eyes, steely blue and unfeelingly cold, darted around the hotel room which doubled as his confessional. He looked down, in a rare moment of discomfort, as he rationalised Oprah Winfrey's closing statement: "I hope the moral to this story is 'The truth will set you free.'"
As an agnostic, Armstrong is unlikely to care that the quote originated from verse 8:32 of the Gospel of John. He associated the phrase most vividly with the advice of his former wife Kristin, one of the few people he is prepared to name as being complicit in sharing the secret of his drug abuse. After a pause that stretched to infinity, and beyond, he simply said: "Yep".
In the inevitable biopic, the music will soar and the credits will roll. In the real world, the agony endures, and the questions are more insistent than ever. Even being charitable, an act which requires a clear mind and a strong stomach, Armstrong is trapped in a twilight world of half-truths, deceits and deceptions.
No one is going to be set free any time soon. Armstrong remains the exception to the rule that cancer survivors bless their borrowed time with a sense of perspective. Based on his game of charades with the High Priestess of American TV, he is unchanged. He expects to trade theatrical regret for redemption. He somehow believes that we believe in him, and what he once represented. He is King Lear in Lycra, a victim of hubris.
His expectation of forgiveness cannot be met. The lifting of what he termed, with telling lack of taste and discretion, "a death sentence", must not be permitted. He has done nothing to earn the privilege of being a fun-runner in the Chicago Marathon, or exorcising his competitive demons in the local triathlon.
The only way to move forward is for Armstrong to fulfil his promise to appear before a truth and reconciliation commission, a quasi-judicial process under oath, which will deny him the easy get-out of anodyne questioning and oblige him to respond to penetrative cross-questioning.
It is not about the bike; it never has been. It is not about Saint Lance; he was a figment of corporate imagination. It is about the sport of cycling; until it has the release of complete clarity that only Armstrong can provide, it will not be allowed to differentiate between a tainted professional circus and its benefits as a healthy, vigorous pursuit for all ages.
The two are destined to overlap, because mutual contamination is unavoidable. To give a small example, officials at the launch of British Cycling's new kit on Friday banned journalists from asking riders anything relating to doping, or to the man whose moral bankruptcy has unique toxicity.
The Tour de France returns to the UK in 2014, but until the status quo is swept away and the challenge of viable culture change is addressed, its cavalcade will lack credibility.
Meanwhile, cheats prosper from long-overdue honesty. They have reinvented themselves as heroes. Tyler Hamilton has a global bestseller on his hands. Floyd Landis stands to make up to $30 million (£19m) as a plaintiff in a civil whistle-blower lawsuit brought against Armstrong by the US Government, who are seeking recompense for investigative costs and breach of contract with the US Postal Service. Potential damages may reach $100m.
That, and the intricacies of the statute of limitations, probably explains Armstrong's reticence to name names. His lawyers might have been satisfied with his performance under Winfrey's formulaic inquisition, but I suspect it will be counterproductive. Despite the frenzy of pre-publicity generated by Winfrey's eponymous TV Channel and their partners at Discovery, US viewing figures were poor, at 4.5 million. Opinions against him have hardened.
Armstrong now knows what it feels to be at bay. He is in the solitary confinement to which he used to consign his most insightful critics. Financially, he is fearful of the chain of events triggered by what he called the "$75 million day" when he was abandoned by his long-term allies and sponsors. It is, to be as honest as he was duplicitous, hard to feel a shred of sympathy. If the second part of the Winfrey interview, much more emotionally driven than the first, was designed to shift the emotional equilibrium of the debate, it failed.
Of course, there were moments in which it was impossible to deny fellow feeling. On a human level, anyone can relate to the shame of betraying a mother. Parents can feel the referred pain of Armstrong's duty to tell Luke, his 13-year-old son, to stop defending his indefensible dad. The cyclist's marginalisation by the Livestrong cancer charity was a commercial necessity but a personal disaster.
Paolo Savoldelli, his erstwhile teammate, suggested yesterday: "What ruined Lance was the fact that he was the incarnation of the American Dream." That's simplistic, but hints at what happens when a man with sociopathic tendencies becomes a conduit for the hopes and fears of sport's global constituency. It will take time for Armstrong to acknowledge the truth.
For the first time in his life, the bully understands what it is like to be bullied. It is a salutary lesson, which demands a salutary response. Over to you, Lance.
What we still need to know
Who were Armstrong's co-conspirators?
Armstrong admits "other people" knew what he was doing. Which team members, or support staff, helped smuggle drugs or organise transfusions? Do they remain in the sport? If so, in what capacity? What is the identity of "Motoman", the courier paid to drop off EPO – the hormone erythropoietin, which boosts red blood-cell production, thus improving endurance – in the 1999 Tour de France? Who paid for the drugs? The cyclist knows the answers, but has not revealed them.
Was the $100k he gave UCI to pay for a cover-up?
Armstrong insists a $100,000 donation to UCI, the International Cycling Union, "was not an exchange for any cover-up". Either he is lying, or team-mates Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis, who informed the United States Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) that he had been able to make the EPO test result "go away", are lying. Armstrong told Winfrey: "There were things that were a little shady, but that was not one of them." Why did he not elaborate on that statement?
Who were the doctors involved?
Dr Michele Ferrari, merely described by Armstrong as "a good man", has been banned for life by Usada, and could face criminal charges in Italy relating to an alleged £24 million doping ring. Nine riders provided affidavits about the doping procedures undertaken by Dr Luis Garcia Del Moral, who worked with the US Postal Services (USPS) team between 1999-2003. Dr Pedro Celaya, his predecessor as team doctor, is accused by Usada of being an "active participant" in doping. Are any others implicated?
Why does he deny his hospital "confession"?
Betsy and Frankie Andreu, who were there, testified under oath that when he was fighting cancer, Armstrong was asked by a doctor if he was using performance-enhancing drugs, and he said he had taken EPO, testosterone, growth hormone, cortisone and steroids. The cyclist has always vehemently denied the conversation took place, and refused to talk about it when asked to do so by Winfrey. What is behind his reluctance, since he has confessed to taking such substances?
How did Armstrong pass 500 drug tests?
Armstrong conceded that Emma O'Reilly, the team's massage therapist, was correct in saying that a backdated prescription covered up a failed test in 1999, but was not asked why the authorities accepted it so readily. Was any advance notification of testing provided? If so, by whom, and why? Was this done on a systematic basis?
What role did Johan Bruyneel play?
Bruyneel was Armstrong's directeur sportif at both the USPS and Discovery teams. Floyd Landis alleged to US federal investigators that Armstrong admitted he and Bruyneel flew to the UCI headquarters and "made a financial agreement to keep the positive test hidden". What is the nature of their relationship with Hein Verbruggen, head of UCI at the time? Is there a commercial connection?
Were USADA offered a $250k donation in 2004?
Armstrong's denials contrast with the unequivocal insistence of Travis Tygart, Usada's CEO, that "we had no hesitation in rejecting the offer". What possible motivation could Usada have for inventing such an initiative, given the weight of evidence they had compiled against the disgraced cyclist?
What is Armstrong's relationship with UCI?
Armstrong insisted on three separate occasions during the Winfrey interview that he was "no fan" of the UCI. Why, then, would he make the unique gesture, for an active athlete, of offering a donation to the governing body of his sport? Is it possible for cycling to move on into a new era while maintaining the status quo of Pat McQuaid's UCI presidency?
How does he explain away medical evidence?
In his comeback Tour de France in 2009, Armstrong's samples showed fewer red blood-cells over a three-week stage race than they would normally have, indicating that he was injecting supplemental blood. John Fahey, president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) insists tests reveal "variations in his blood that show with absolute certainty he was doping after 2005".
Why should Armstrong be believed?
By his own admission, Armstrong has lied comprehensively and consistently. What proof did he offer that he is not merely extending the deception? After all, to use his own words against him, he is "not the most believable guy in the world right now".Reuse content