Armstrong begins struggle for public redemption

Penance: Armstrong deep in thought during his interview, which aired last night © Getty Images

After shocking revelations of a doping scandal, the once-awesome reputation of cyclist Lance Armstrong is in tatters. Now, in a dramatic two-part interview, he fights to win it back.

Lance Armstrong was the ultimate comeback hero. As a young cyclist he was heading for the top of his sport, until a diagnosis of testicular cancer threatened to end his career – and even his life. Yet Armstrong recovered and went on to win an astonishing seven consecutive victories in the Tour de France. ‘The Boss’ became the most successful cyclist ever and the most worshipped athlete in the world.

Then, last October, the US Anti-Doping Agency released a report that shook the sporting world. Armstrong, it claimed, had been at the centre of ‘the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen’. He was ‘a serial cheat’ who bullied his entire team into an illegal regime of drugs and hormones.

Lance Armstrong’s mighty reputation was shattered. He became in the eyes of the public the ‘anti-athlete’, a greedy and remorseless figure who had defrauded the world in pursuit of personal glory. He was even labelled a psychopath.

If Lance Armstrong is to recover, it requires yet another spectacular resurrection. And the work began last night. Had he doped? asked interviewer Oprah Winfrey. ‘Yes’. Was he a bully? ‘Yes’. But, he said, ‘I will spend the rest of my life trying to win back trust.’

That, indeed, is the plan. His attempt to salvage his reputation will take many years and be carefully managed by a renowned public image guru.

It is a daunting task; but celebrities have come back from the gutter of public opinion before. US President Bill Clinton, for instance, caused an almighty scandal after his affair with an intern was revealed, ending in an impeachment by Congress. Yet after an apparently heartfelt apology to his wife and citizens, he finished his term with higher approval ratings than any other president. Could this be a model for Armstrong to follow?

Then there was John Profumo, the British Minister whose affair with a model brought the government to its knees. His method of atonement was very different: after resigning from office, Profumo spent the rest of his life volunteering in lowly positions for an East London charity.

Crocodile tears?

Sickening, say less forgiving types. Only a fool would believe that these cynical celebrities are truly sorry – it is a shameless act designed to win back the money and fame they vainly love. Were Armstrong really sorry, he would surrender his celebrity for good.

And what good would that do? ask more forgiving types. Armstrong has been an inspiration to millions, and his money funds charitable causes that are truly worthwhile. Retreating into obscurity would be cowardly; if he can show that he has truly changed, his positive influence on the world can survive and even grow.

You Decide

  1. What sins, if any, should be beyond forgiveness?
  2. How much should we care about our reputations?


  1. Imagine you are the public relations expert advising Lance Armstrong on how to rebuild his reputation. Write a five-point guide describing how Armstrong can redeem himself in the public eye.
  2. Write a story (true or false) about somebody who does something terrible, but then goes on to make up for their crime.

Some People Say...

“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.”

William Shakespeare

What do you think?

Q & A

Maybe Lance Armstrong doped, maybe he didn’t. Why should I care?
You might not be interested in Lance Armstrong, but it’s not just celebrities who must worry about their reputation. It might matter to you that you are perceived as trustworthy, for instance, or brave; if you do something that suggests otherwise, your reputation will be damaged. ‘It takes 20 years to build your reputation,’ as Warren Buffet said, ‘and five minutes to ruin it.’
But most people’s reputations stay within a small group of friends, right?
Not so fast. A recent survey showed that many parents worried more about their children’s ‘online reputation’ than anything else. What you post on social networks creates a public profile that could affect your social life and even your career – everybody has a ‘public image’ now!

Word Watch

Tour de France
The most prestigious competition in the cycling world, this backbreaking race takes place over 23 days and covers 3,200 km. The Tour is plagued by drugs: all but one of the cyclists who won the race between 1996 and 2010 have been found guilty of doping.
Drugs, hormones and blood transfusions can all help to give athletes a crucial advantage. Some sports theorists say that doping is no less fair than using sophisticated technology or dietary supplements, but due to health risks and perceived dishonesty, most of these techniques are banned.
Not all psychopaths are violent. In fact many psychopathic traits (determination, single-mindedness, a disregard for others’ opinions) are similar to those we celebrate in top athletes.
Literally, ‘to make fit again’.
In the United States, as in the UK and many other countries, elected representatives have the power to call for officials to be removed from office for committing a public offence. This is called ‘impeachment’.

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