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Lance Armstrong Blew His Last Chance, Experts Say

Other Disgraced Athletes Have Made Comebacks, So How Marketable Is the Former Champion Cyclist? Not at all

By Published on . 6

Lance Armstrong admitted to trying to "control the narrative" of his life during part one of his interview with Oprah Winfrey on Thursday night. But the narrative that's now spinning out of control is what happens to what's left of his image and marketability. The consensus on Madison Ave: He's finished.

Nike, Anheuser-Busch, Oakley, Trek and other sponsors dumped the disgraced cyclist after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency banned him for life for running what it called the most "sophisticated" doping operation the sport had ever seen. But if Mr. Armstrong thinks confessing to Ms. Winfrey will be the first step in a comeback, he should think again, experts warn.

Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey
Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey

For the first time, he admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs, cheating his way to seven Tour de France titles and bullying friends and foes that tried to expose the truth.

The Livestrong Foundation founder showed little emotion or regret in the interview taped Monday at a hotel in Austin. He coldly described his career as "one big lie." He said that at the time, he didn't feel bad about doping or even believed he was cheating. His awkward attempt at humor fell flat.

"I didn't get the feeling he feels any guilt. I get the feeling he has a sense of entitlement. A true narcissist," said Norman Wyloge, a Manhattan psychoanalyst who watched the 90-minute special on the OWN network.

Ad Age asked sports-marketing, body-language and crisis-PR experts to analyze Mr. Armstrong's performance on three counts:

Marketability
Put a fork in Mr. Armstrong as far as future endorsement deals go, said Darren Rovell, ESPN's sports-business reporter. He's done.

"Lance Armstrong doesn't have any future marketability. It's over," he said.

Yes, other athletes such as Tiger Woods, Ben Roethlisberger, Ray Lewis and Kobe Bryant have bounced back from scandals. But Mr. Rovell ticked off the factors that would prevent that from happening for Mr. Armstrong.

First, his cycling career is over, so he has no opportunity to wow consumers or sponsors on his bike, unlike Mr. Woods, who could and did return to competition. Two, it was his inspiring story -- of a cancer survivor triumphing in races -- that made him marketable. If the wins are not legit, then neither is he. Three, he managed to "transcend" a niche sport. "He was never just a cyclist," said Mr. Rovell. But if Mr. Armstrong does compete in marathons or triathlons, he'll be back in a niche sport that's hard-pressed to attract major sponsors.

Body language
At the outset, Mr. Armstrong tried to appear in "complete control" of the interview, said Tonya Reiman, author of "The Power of Body Language." He took a dominant-male position with one foot crossed over the other and took up as much room as possible.

But as Ms. Winfrey coolly went for the jugular, he betrayed his fear and anxiety in nonverbal ways, Ms. Reiman said. He looked away from Ms. Winfrey rather than looking her in the eye. He touched his hands to his face repeatedly, bit his lips, took deep breaths and swallowed hard. All signs of anxiety. He shrugged his shoulders when he answered questions -- a signal he didn't believe what he was saying.

The most interesting moments for Ms. Reiman came when Mr. Armstrong "fig-leafed," or nervously covered his groin with his hands. "If you watched him, there were several times he did that," she said. "He was wringing his hands. That's a sign of somebody who's under pressure."

At one point, Mr. Armstrong admitted to calling accuser Betty Andreu "crazy" and a "bitch" -- but joked he never said she was "fat." He laughed nervously. Oprah didn't crack a smile. He quickly closed his legs and tucked his hands between his legs.

Ms. Reiman felt Mr. Armstrong came off as too rehearsed, too calculating, almost like a politician. "He showed so much arrogance. Not enough real remorse. That's what we wanted to see."

Crisis PR
The first crisis-PR move by scandal-plagued athletes is often the confessional interview where they come clean and throw themselves at the mercy of the court of public opinion.

But crisis expert Mike Paul believes Mr. Armstrong only "partially" told the truth Thursday night. When it comes to confessing to save your reputation, you either have to go big or go home, he said. "The worst kind of lie is the partial truth, because you are drawing people into thinking you are being fully honestly and sincere. But what you're saying is, 'I'm smarter than you. I'll give you little pieces that make you think I'm being truthful -- and then I'm going to lie about the rest.'"

As investigators parse Mr. Armstrong's comments to Ms. Winfrey, Mr. Paul believes they'll find multiple evasions and inconsistencies. So Mr. Armstrong may have only created more problems for himself.

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