Coming Clean: Framing and Identity Negotiation in the Oprah Winfrey-Lance Armstrong Interview


On the podium, after receiving the award for his record seventh Tour win, in what has since become a tradition, Lance Armstrong was unexpectedly handed a microphone to say a few words to the assembled crowds on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. He was unprepared for this speech, yet what he said was surprising and poignant at the time and seems even more so in hindsight. He concluded his short speech as follows:

The last thing I’ll say for people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the sceptics: I’m sorry for you, I’m sorry you can’t dream big, I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles. This is one hell of a race, a great sporting event and you should believe. You should believe in these athletes and you should believe in these people. I’m a fan of the Tour de France for as long as I live and there are no secrets—this is a sporting event and hard work wins it, so Vive le Tour forever!

For someone bowing out at the peak of his achievements having just received the most prestigious prize in cycling for a record seventh time, it seemed remarkable to hear him say that he was sorry about anything.

© The Author(s) 2018

P. Kiernan, Language, Identity and Cycling in the New Media Age

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51951-1_3

One might have wondered, why was he addressing ‘the cynics and the sceptics’? And, why was he asking people to ‘believe in miracles’? His cynical words were linked in the press to accusations of using PEDs (Abt 2005), an accusation he vigorously denied. Was he, like Cavendish, someone unjustly represented by the media? Were the rumours of doping something dreamed up by a French media jealous of this brash American? Or was Armstrong brazenly lying to his public? Even Daniel Coyle (2006), who, while writing a biography of Armstrong, spent a year following him as he prepared for the Tour, seemed unable to answer this question. More generally though, his words raise the issue of authentic and inauthentic identities in the media. How is the public to distinguish truth from lies? And what kind of contextual resources are needed to provoke a public admission from someone who has a lot to lose from doing so?

When Lance Armstrong (hereafter, LA) made a miraculous recovery from cancer and went on to win the Tour a record seven times consecutively, he not only made a name for himself but brought massive publicity to his cancer foundation Livestrong, his sponsors, the Tour (Dauncey and Hare 2003, p. 124) and even the sport of cycle road racing itself (Associated Press 2005; Edmondson 2011). Corporate brands such as Trek, Oakley and Nike thrived on their association with him as cycling took off as a sport in the US. Among other things, LA offered the image of ‘hero’ to the community of cancer survivors struggling to find a positive identity (Brett 2012; Windsor 2015). It was an irresistible narrative of a contemporary hero, captured in the bestselling autobiography It’s Not About the Bike: My journey back to life (Armstrong and Jenkins 2000) and embellished in various ways by the media, his followers and sponsors.

Even early on, however, a few journalists challenged this heroic narrative (Walsh 2013, 2015), observing that the really incredible part was his remarkable success as a supposedly clean athlete in a sport plagued by doping. David Walsh also later heard from two people who offered evidence to confirm his suspicions. Emma O’Reilly, who worked as a soi- gneur (team masseuse and assistant) on LA’s team, heard the team arranging with LA to issue a backdated prescription to cover up a positive test for cortisone. Betsy Andreu, the wife of Frankie Andreu, one of LA’s teammates, discovered that her husband was taking drugs to support LA and had also heard LA describe his own use of PEDs to a doctor while he was in hospital.

LA denied everything and went on the attack. His adamant refusal to engage with journalists on the topic of doping was reinforced by product commercials that evoked an image of a talented athlete who worked hard for his success. One such commercial showed images of him training and returning home on a dark, wet evening with the catchline: ‘What am I on? I am on my bike eight hours a day’ (Nike 2001). Another showed him leading a group of riders along an offroad shortcut though a forest, with obstacles that he neatly dodges but that cause his followers to crash at various points along the way, until LA returns safely to the road. It was a scene that echoed what had been a lucky escape for LA during the Tour where he had been forced off the road but survived by taking a shortcut across a field, adding to the narrative of his invincibility. Meanwhile, his belligerent denials, later even under oath in court, were followed up by libel lawsuits against David Walsh and Emma O’Reilly. Armstrong not only seemed to possess a remarkable will in overcoming cancer and incredible athletic prowess in being able to win cycling’s most prestigious race a record number of times but also seemed in complete control of his public identity.

Nevertheless, when, already long retired, a case built by the US AntiDoping Agency (USADA), which included confessions by his (also retired) former teammates and retesting of stored blood samples based on updated medical technology as evidence, revealed that, contrary to his consistent denials, LA had doped throughout his career, he brought shame on himself and his sport. Those incredible victories finally lost all credibility and were officially stripped from him by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the governing body of cycling that had awarded them to him in the first place. Armstrong’s supporters, including his sponsors and cancer foundation, cut links with him, and many of his once-enthusiastic fans now derided him. Meanwhile, the few journalists and others who had once been ostracised for accusing LA were now finally vindicated.

Even so, LA was initially defiant. Following the news of his being stripped of his Tour titles, it was reported that he would be asked to return the yellow jerseys he had been awarded (as well as the prize money) to race organisers. Instead, he tweeted a photograph of himself lying on his couch at home in front of the seven framed winner’s jerseys together with the comment, ‘Back in Austin [his hometown] just layin’ around ...’ (Press_Association 2012). Six months later, he finally confessed publicly in a televised interview with popular US chat show host Oprah Winfrey, which aired on her OWN channel on January 18-19, 2013. During the interview, LA commented, ‘The story was so perfect for so long’, an admission that his heroic public identity was founded on a narrative that, after all, meant his miraculous comeback was only possible due to the use of banned PEDs his doctor, Michele Ferarri, was able to administer in ways to evade detection. Soon after, Daniel Coyle was also granted a confession interview.

The case of ‘the Armstrong lie’, as it was later dubbed (Gibney 2013), is an interesting one for the consideration of celebrity identity and the media because ‘believing in miracles’ is, in a sense, what the notion of sporting celebrity in contemporary culture is all about. As Daniel Boorstin put it, the celebrity is ‘[f]abricated on purpose to satisfy the exaggerated expectations of human greatness’ (Boorstin 1961, p. 58).

Chapter 2 considered the ways in which autobiography may be seen as a resource for sporting celebrities to challenge representations of themselves in the public media, through a comparative consideration of the resources at work in media interviews and reports of them. This chapter focuses on a single text that, nevertheless, incorporates a wide range of texts in order to build a coherent narrative of a once-revered athlete forced to confess to doping and trying in vain to win back his public’s approval. It considers an analysis of a televised confession on the Oprah Winfrey talk show with LA, a prominent athlete who had recently been convicted for doping. Media reports following the interview indicate that the confession failed to placate a shocked public (CBS/AP 2013; Middlehurst-Schwartz 2013; ObserverSportStaff 2013). The analysis, which moves from broader contextual considerations to detailed features of the text, shows why the confession proved so ineffectual. The interview included few acts of apology and was dominated by a renegotiation of identity, which drew heavily on evaluative resources. The attempts by LA to defend some features of his original narrative were largely undermined by the rich use of multimodal resources to position him as a liar, a cheat and a bully, in spite of his efforts to both recontextualise his actions and distance himself from a past self.

I also explore the use of framing and multimodal resources in evoking identities. A multimodal approach provides a way into reading both the multimodal montages which frame the interview and the multimodal context of gesture, facial expression and body language within the interview proper.

The inclusion of a multimodal analysis of the interview serves as an opportunity to illustrate how multimodal resources—including gesture and intonation but also extending into the use of music, camera angles and video montage on television—evoke a more convincing narrative than the verbal alone.

Finally, with reference to Goffman’s (1975) notion of framing, the analysis explores how the interview is framed on a number of levels within the video montage, which mitigates against LA’s attempts to reposition himself favourably with the public.

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