How Will History Remember Lance Armstrong?

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterJanuary 18, 2013

Lance Armstrong told Oprah Winfrey during their lengthy interview that aired over two nights on OWN that he feels both disgraced and humbled in the wake of his professional career unraveling over the last five months.

Armstrong wasn't just outed as a cheater, an offense to which he repeatedly admitted wrongdoing. Perhaps more importantly for his legacy, Armstrong was outed as bully and a jerk and a liar.

Is that how we'll remember Armstrong, as a cheater and a bully and a jerk and a liar? Only time will tell.

Time is a funny thing. Time—and more specifically what happens in that time—can change the way we look at something that in and of itself hasn't changed at all. Armstrong hasn't raced competitively for nearly three years and, per his admission to Oprah, hasn't used performance-enhancing drugs in nearly a decade. Two months ago, Armstrong was still defiantly fighting the accusations in an effort to save his reputation, sponsorships and supporters. 

Time. Time changes everything, even when the truth has never changed.

Armstrong spoke to Oprah about how things have changed for him over the last few years, as time and perspective (and therapy) help him come to grips with the fact he is not the same man he was in 2005. He is no longer invincible.

"I felt invincible, was told he was invincible, truly believed he was invincible. That guy's still there. I'm not going to lie to you or the public…he's still there. Does he need to be exiting through this process? Yes."

How long it takes for "that guy" to exit will go a long way in determining how long it takes the rest of us to see Armstrong for who he really is.

We know who he was, and with his admission to what many people suspected over the last decade and a half and what the piles of testimony have shown us over the last six months to be indisputably true, we sure as heck know he was just as terrible as his detractors begged us to see over time.

Can a man change? Can a conversation with Oprah be his "come to Jesus" moment? Moreover, regardless of whether or not he actually changes, can our perception change? Can time and perspective heal the wounds Armstrong's lies have created?

This is not a yes-or-no answer, so it feels like a sidestep to ask such a serious question without giving an actual answer. To me, nothing will change. Armstrong was a cheater and a liar, and while he swears he's not a cheater anymore, it's hard to look at his interview with Oprah and not still consider him a liar.

Will we have to wait until he is 50 to get the rest of the story? Oprah had to cover nearly 20 years in the span of three hours and Armstrong did an adept job at sidestepping the issues he wanted no part of discussing; admitting just enough to get her to move on without giving too many details on the truths he wasn't ready to admit. How long will we have to wait until we get those details?

The devil, as they say, is in the details.

"Are you facing your demons," Winfrey asked.

"Absolutely. Absolutely," Armstrong replied. "Yeah. It's a process and I think, you know, we're at the beginning of the process."

How you feel about Armstrong's admission now probably won't be how you feel about it tomorrow or next week when news inevitably breaks that he is working on a plea deal with USADA or WADA or the U.S. federal government to get himself back into the sport. How you feel today won't be the same as when Armstrong competes in a triathlon or running race again, or when he gives a speech at a rally for cancer survivors that every news channel in the country picks up.

Armstrong is too proud and still too defiant to disappear and live a quiet and unassuming life. 

This is still the same guy, after all, who went from a family man who beat cancer to a shirtless bachelor, running through the streets of Austin, Texas with Matthew McConaughey and shacking up with rock star Sheryl Crow to settling down with two new kids to add to his previous three. The last 15-or-so years of Armstrong's life have been a constant series of reinvention, and this conversation with Oprah is, perhaps, just the next chapter; another reinvention through time.

Time can add perspective on its own, too. Our opinion of him will change as we learn more about other great athletes of his time. Can our opinion of Armstrong exist without the context of Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens or Marion Jones or the litany of other athletes who have been accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs while becoming the best the world has ever seen? The more we learn about that time in our sporting history, the more we can put what Armstrong did in perspective.

What won't change with time is how Armstrong treated those who stood in his way and those who believed in him when he had given them no truthful reason do to so. Some have already begun to forgive him. Others never will. More than just time, that level of forgiveness is deeply personal, even for those of us whom he inspired from afar.

"This conversation will live forever," Armstrong admitted to Oprah. "That dumb Tweet with the yellow jerseys will live forever."

Armstrong's legacy will certainly live forever, too. How we remember that legacy over the next five or 10 years will depend on what Lance does next. Only time will tell.