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The higher they go, the harder they fall. As a consummate observer of human folly, what could be bigger than the Lance Armstrong - Oprah Winfrey interview conducted last week and aired in India on Friday — as I write this?
One of the century’s most admired figures, a hero to his generation, a legendary sportsman, a heroic cancer survivor and a celebrated philanthropist, Armstrong was truly considered infallible. That he would be confessing to long suspected and ferociously denied doping charges, publicly and on air, is a seminal moment in public life.
It brings together many different issues: the management of celebrity and public image, the art of communication and of course ethics.
God knows, we are not unfamiliar with heroes with feet of clay: Tiger Woods, Rajat Gupta, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and Jimmy Savile are only a few of the people whose halos have been yanked off rudely.
In India too, cricketers, politicians and businessmen — all of whom have occupied cozy pedestals in public regard — have been known to come tumbling down.
We live in a world where each day’s news brings in one more instance of human greed, recklessness, graft and idiocy. What is the best way to handle this? Not only for the people in question but for us, the general public, who have invested our emotions and time in their personas? How will we handle it if tomorrow we hear that Julie Andrews, whose career has been predicated on such syrupy treacle as to cause diabetes, were to suddenly confess to pedophilia? (Note to reader: this is only an extreme speculation) or that Mother Teresa was shaving off money from donations received to invest in a condo in Miami? Or that Aung San Suu Kyi has struck a deal with the Myanmar junta?
I put forward these unthinkable speculations only to demonstrate how preposterous it was that a larger-than-life sportsman, the winner of seven Tour de France trophies, would admit to doping. Or that the head of IMF was a rapist, or that the poster boy of India’s corporate acuity would be indicted for insider trading.
That’s how impactful and heartbreaking the tawdry story of Armstrong and his doping scandal has been. It has taught us that no one’s infallible, no one’s above blemish and that the seven deadly sins apply to us all.
Which brings me to the first half of the two-part interview that was aired today.
How did Armstrong acquit himself in what must be the most difficult two-and-a-half hours of his life (far more demanding than any of his cycling challenges)?
In my opinion, admirably well. He eschewed blubbering like Woods, he avoided the absurd waffle that Bill Clinton had put us through (“I didn’t inhale”, “There was no penetration” ), and he brought a well-practised and considered clinical tactic to his interview.
Listening to Winfrey talk about the interview was an advanced course in how to conduct these things. She had, she told interlocutors on CBS’ morning news, prepared over a hundred questions for Armstrong.
That’s what struck me the most. When talking about her impression of how Armstrong conducted himself , Winfrey said, “… He certainly had prepared himself for this moment... He brought it. He really did.” She added that she didn’t have to dig deep or refer to her copious preparations.
That’s the takeaway. When you’re cornered, your best strategy is to disarm the opposition with your forthcoming candour.
Champions do that.
Malavika Sangghvi is a Mumbai-based writer