There’s a scene in the 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” that comes to mind when I think of public apologies.
It’s that moment when John Cleese, as Sir Lancelot, storms a castle to save a damsel in distress. Making his way through a wedding party to get to the tower, Lancelot ends up, well, lancing a lot of innocent people with his sword.
Turns out the damsel was really a dude, and after much confusion, the father brings the famous knight back downstairs to smooth things out with the crowd.
“There he is!” someone yells, and the crowd lunges towards them. Lancelot resumes his carnage.
“Hold it, hold it! Please!” shouts the father.
“Sorry, sorry,” says Lancelot as he backs off. “See what I mean, I just get carried away. … Sorry, everyone.”
“He’s killed the best man,” someone yells, and the crowd grows angry again.
“Please, please!” pleads the patriarch. “This is supposed to be a happy occasion! Let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who.”
Apologies come in many forms. Lately, though, they don’t seem to have much to do with real remorse.
There are the long overdue apologies, where governments and institutions play proxy for people and policies long since passed into the annals of history. Such are the apologies to First Nations people and Japanese Canadians.
It’s one thing to make suitable amends for past injustice, but I’ve never understood why the government, supposedly on behalf of “the rest of us,” should extend a mea culpa for actions of a bygone era. Many of us only have to go back a couple of generations to find ancestors who were wronged by the powers that be. Thankfully, we’ve moved on.
Then there’s the celebrity apology.
Lance Armstrong is no Lancelot. He hasn’t killed anyone or seriously ruined anyone’s life but his own.
So, it’s hard to know whether his public apology during an Oprah Winfrey taping Monday — which has yet to be aired — will gain any traction. (He may, in fact, simply have confessed without apologizing publicly.)
Armstrong has steadfastly denied charges he used performance-enhancing drugs during his reign as world cycling champion. Even as fellow teammates fell on their swords, and other witnesses came forward, Armstrong has walled himself up like a fortress, even resorting to the courts in an attempt to silence his detractors.
There’s no hard and fast rule that says when someone has to finally fess up for past sins. But conventional wisdom suggests Lance Armstrong’s apology is long past its expiry date.
It’s been crystal clear for years that he lied about doping, despite his success in litigating against accusers. He was stripped of his Tour de France titles last year and has lost most of his endorsements.
He was also forced to step down from his successful cancer charity, Livestrong, after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency issued a report that put him at the helm of a long-running doping scheme.
There were several opportunities, long before it had come to all this, for Armstrong to salvage at least a shred of his reputation with a heartfelt admission of guilt. But he stood tough, angrily and arrogantly, as his world crumbled around him.
There are no words or tears or woeful expressions that could ever save him now.
Apologies can be empty, or strained, or simply strategic. Contrition is a veritable industry in itself these days, as politicians, athletes, singers and actors parade in front of microphones to vent their sins. It’s easy to be cynical about motive, but there is such a thing as a true apology. It must be genuine, it should come with consequences, and it should be timely.
For Armstrong, the race is over and the crowd has gone home. Millions may watch his moment of candour on Oprah’s show Thursday. But few will be in a forgiving mood.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org