Lance Armstrong has transformed himself into something totally unexpected. At this point, almost eight months after he was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, Armstrong should be in the middle of an extraordinary comeback, a riveting recovery from disgrace. I thought he had it in him. I really did. I thought I recognized a little bit of Bill Clinton's elasticity there.
Instead, the man who launched 80 million yellow bracelets has become astonishingly banal. In his recent interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, he offered a toddler's rationalization. It amounted to: Everyone else was doping, so I still see myself as the seven-time champion.
Or, as the paper quoted him, after he was asked whether it was possible to succeed without doping in the years he won: "Le Tour de France? Non. Impossible de gagner sans dopage."
He ran another version of this line by Oprah Winfrey six months ago, saying the drugs were as much a part of the sport as air in the tires. He now says this as if everyone else should have known better, that only fools believed then or believe now that he was more than part of a system.
He's doing an old and graceless dance: First, vigorously deny any wrongdoing. Eviscerate accusers. When finally caught, pretend that the offense -- the one that prompted eviscerations -- means nothing.
I thought Armstrong had more moves than that. All those years that he lied about doping, Armstrong manipulated like a champ. He always had the perfect rejoinder for people seeking simple answers, and he delivered each syllable with a force that defied proper skepticism to take root.
I'd see him on TV -- in total control of an interview and making evasions sound like genuine answers -- and be in awe. The only person who could top him was Marion Jones. I always knew she was lying, and yet I'd still feel my brain drifting toward believing her every time she defended herself. She even conned Jon Stewart into believing that while she was prosecuted, the people who provided her with drugs were not. (Victor Conte went to prison for dealing, and Jones would have avoided a criminal record if, after doping and then lying about it to federal agents, she hadn't followed up with involvement in a check-fraud scheme.)
Unlike Jones, Armstrong never swayed me, but I could see how other people succumbed. He was smart and forceful, and he seemed so absolutely certain.
He also had a tendency to express opinions that required some guts, especially for a Texan who went bike riding with President Bush. He declined to express belief in a god, and instead of crediting faith with helping him recover from cancer, he'd say he had received great medical treatment. He opposed the Iraq War. He wasn't afraid to set himself apart. So when it came time to sell a post-confession viewpoint about doping, I figured he'd come up with something fairly alternative, definitely original.
But he's got nothing. Armstrong did tell Le Monde that Pat McQuaid must be replaced as head of the cycling union, but he's arriving late to that party and bringing nothing to the buffet. Minus incriminating documents or tape recordings or sworn affidavits, he isn't contributing anything new.
He hasn't improved at all on the interview he did with Oprah six months ago, when he came across as shockingly awkward and short on self-control. When he made a weird joke about calling antagonist Betsy Andreu horrible names but never saying she was fat -- he said this in front of Oprah, no less -- I wondered how he had ever pulled off his lies for all those years.
Maybe, after almost 13 years atop the celebrity heap, he doesn't know how to fight his way up from the ground. He came across as nothing but a sore loser when he told Le Monde: "The USADA 'reasoned decision' perfectly managed to destroy a man's life, but it has not benefited cycling at all."
He doesn't know that. He hasn't been actively involved in the sport for the last year, kept informed on the inner workings of every team. So he can't know, just as he can't be sure whether the amount and type of doping he did made him a seven-time champion.
The obfuscations make it impossible to take Armstrong seriously when he says he wants to be part of a truth and reconciliation process for cycling. He can't even concede that he might -- by hiring the expensive and now-banned Italian doctor, Michele Ferrari -- have gained a bigger advantage from PEDs than his competitors did when they juiced.
This is where I overestimated him. He seemed smart enough to know that consistent humility would be the essential element of any image reclamation project. But so far, he can't manage it.
Almost everything Armstrong says now just emphasizes his egregious deceits of the past. He still attacks USADA, even after admitting that it got the fundamental point right. He glosses over the fact that he was offered the chance to confess to the agency, just as his teammates ultimately did, and perhaps control his own narrative. If he really believed that widespread doping left him no alternatives and that his accomplishments should not be diminished as a result, why didn't he make the admission?
The fact is, no one has done more to make doping in sports seem like an evil than Lance Armstrong in his prime, desperately, passionately, ferociously guarding the perception that he was clean.
He could have shrugged off all the accusers instead of blitzing them with lawsuits and personal attacks. He could have come to the defense of Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, two of his former teammates, when they were banned by USADA. He stiff-armed them instead. Anti-doping agencies functioned as his flak jacket then, their very existence suggesting that someone kept a proper eye on him and his urine samples.
He didn't so much as glance in the direction of moral relativism. On this point, Armstrong worked as an absolutist, constantly bolstering the belief that pharmaceutical experiments tainted the sport and that it was terribly important for him to be an all-natural champion.
There was no nuance in that position. He was so good at standing that ground, I never noticed how knee-jerk and banal he was even then.