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An old dog with an old trick: why Lance Armstrong’s Oprah moment won’t save him

Disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong will need to do more than appear on Oprah to win back public appeal. EPA/Ian Langsdon

Once upon a time, there was something beseeching about a public mea culpa. Once upon a time, if you found yourself soliciting sex in a toilet block, in bed with a prostitute or having fathered an illegitimate child, there was always a chance that the situation could be salvaged.

Your people would phone Barbara Walters’ people, would phone Oprah’s people, and you’d settle into armchair and tell your story.

You’d mention your depression. Your struggles with substance abuse. There’d be child abuse. Self-esteem issues. Your parents always said that you were nothing. You once saw a kitten hit by a car. You’ve been struggling with a mysterious illness.

The sin would be admitted to – yes you’re flawed, aren’t we all flawed? – and you’d cry. And if you’ve got a long-suffering significant other, they’d be propped next to you squeezing your hand at well-timed intervals.

You hurt people, you’re devastated that you did that. You’re seeking treatment, you want to take some time away from the public eye now. To recover, regroup, rebuild relationships and truly work out what it is you want from this life.

And once upon a time audiences bought it. We might not have ever completely forgotten your sin, but there was once a time when taking ownership of a wretched situation could be construed as adult, as responsible, as potentially even admirable for those drawn to the bad-boy-made-good narrative. And you’d be credited accordingly.

Not anymore, my friends, not anymore.

Spin and crisis management are ridiculously familiar to modern media audiences. Nowadays, no screen portrayal of politics exists without at least a couple of career-destroying scandals that get fixed through press conferences, tell-all interviews and tears.

And in every single one of these depictions, audiences are reminded of the all-too-quickly deployed tools of political manipulation. Because in a world where each of us has a phone that doubles as a camera, there’s only so long a scandal can be denied before the evidence surfaces and the witnesses start blabbing. Control needs to be regained and a public mea culpa has always been a key component.

Bill Clinton set the benchmark for public confession with his appearance alongside wife Hilary to address allegations of infidelity in the 1992 presidential campaign.

That nowadays we can all see through this routine is at the crux of why any crap Lance spills to Oprah won’t help him. In the contemporary mediascape, he has chosen an anachronistic technique to try to fix a horrendous situation without conceding that it no longer functions as the silver bullet. He’s not as smart as he thinks he is, audiences are nowhere near as malleable as they once might have been and this whole soft interrogation thing is starting to look pretty dusty.

Of course, such arrogance about his intellect, about his powers of persuasion, is precisely why Armstrong finds himself in this pickle.

Had he just been a doper, and had it been 1991, then perhaps having a sit-down with Oprah may have done the trick. Alas it’s not 1991, we’re not in Kansas anymore, and he’s not just a doper; rather, he is the bloke who arrogantly Tweeted the photograph of himself reclining in front of his ill-gotten tour jerseys. I dare say we’re less likely to forgive this routine than all his dastardly juicing.

Lance started digging his grave every time he denied enhancing his performance. And he shovelled deeper every time he exhibited his trademark arrogance that made it seem outrageous that anyone would ever think to question his integrity.

Humans are predisposed to forgive. That, compounded with our yen to put athletes on pedestals for even the slightest achievement means a lot of us really want to stop hating him. But doing so is only possible when we’re given a reason to. When something - anything! - gets dangled in front of us to make him seem worthy of our forgiveness.

Rather than seeming like a nice guy, a humble guy, a likable guy, instead, Armstrong has been treating us all like idiots. Having a yarn with Oprah only perpetuates this.

We’re all 30 seconds away from typing “lance armstrong couch jersey” into the Google images search. That’s thirty seconds from a visual reminder that no public mea culpa is going to get him out of this one.

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