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Oprah interview: Can Lance Armstrong rehabilitate his image?

Lance Armstrong has a very steep hill to climb to regain any measure of public favor, given his past transgressions. But the Oprah Winfrey interview can be a start, image experts say.

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One huge factor in his favor, say Goedkoop and others, is Armstrong’s long association with the Livestrong cancer charity he founded and ran for a number of years as a well-known cancer survivor himself. For that reason, many people want Armstrong to succeed because he is their genuine hero.

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But first he must show that he is aware – and sorry for – the damage that he caused.

“He has to admit guilt and apologize but also needs to show that he is sorry and be perceived by the public as having paid a price,” says Gene Grabowski, executive vice president of Levick, an image relations firm. “He needs to claim responsibility and not blame others, otherwise the resistance will continue to undermine his chances of acceptance and redemption.”

One way to show contrition, says Mr. Leff, would be to become a leading voice in world antidoping efforts.

“He needs to become the poster child for sports drug testing, and he needs to be a voice that tells young athletes that they can compete without drugs,” he says.

Indeed, some say Armstrong has done the greatest damage to sport itself.

“The biggest public-relations loss here is not to Lance Armstrong, but to the sport of cycling and, more broadly, sport overall,” says Michael Smith, a professor of communication at La Salle University. “Unlike Tiger Woods and Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose transgressions were personal failures unrelated to playing golf or governing, Armstrong’s doping went straight to the heart of his sport. For Tiger and Arnold, the PR damage was personal. Still long-lasting, still personally costly both monetarily and in public support, but contained their personal reputations.”

What's more, it could get worse. Questions linger about whether officials at cycling's governing body, the UCI, helped cover up the scandal.

For his part, Armstrong faces problems well beyond his image. He could be forced to return substantial sponsorship fees and pay a hefty fine.

Given the 15 years of transgressions and the many, oft-replayed denials of wrong doing, many analysts say Armstrong's climb to public redemption might be too steep.

“He had ample opportunity to come clean, make his apologies, and accept the consequences of his actions. Had he done so, he may have found redemption. But he did not. And as far as I am able to determine, he continues to blame the sport and the officials involved in its oversight for his behavior,” says Gordon Coonfield, a professor of communication at Villanova University.

“Perhaps everyone [dopes]," he adds. "And if so, that would certainly make his apology, with its caveats, more compelling. But he didn't just dope. He lied. And he sought actively to humiliate and discredit anyone who called him on it. He used his power, popularity, and connections to hurt people in order to silence them. This is, if not unforgivable, at least unpardonable.”

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