'MAKE every obstacle an opportunity and every negative a positive." These were the words Lance Armstrong's mother instilled in him when he was young.

And throughout his life, the American cyclist has lived them.

As obstacles go, though, being stripped of seven Tour de France titles after failing to contest doping charges is quite a tricky thing to turn into an opportunity – even for an icon of willpower and cancer survival such as Armstrong. And it is particularly tricky when the public can see that you have denied drug-taking until the bitter last, and when the report by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) concluded that you have run "the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen".

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The most one might expect in such circumstances is to mitigate the damage done. But then Lance Armstrong is not most people. He may have other, grander ideas of what he can achieve by appearing on Oprah Winfrey's television show on Thursday. He may well be thinking he can turn this most negative of negatives into a positive simply, as is his way, through force of will.

The programme is billed as a "no-holds barred" interview. Will Armstrong confess to the doping allegations, or say anything to redeem himself, atone or provide catharsis? Those questions are being hotly debated – and he still denies the charges.

When USADA's decision to strip Armstrong of his titles was ratified by the world cycling governing body, UCI, the cyclist tweeted a defiant image of himself surrounded by his framed yellow jerseys. But there is reason to believe he may at least admit something: a New York Times story last week claimed Armstrong had been in a meeting with the head of USADA about a possible confession (though this was later denied by the cyclist's lawyer).

Armstrong would not be the first celebrity to act out their public remorse on television. Many have walked that path before him, some of them, including boxer Mike Tyson and athlete Marion Jones, also weeping out their apologies with Oprah. Jones, like Armstrong, had taken performance-enhancing drugs, but insisted she had thought her coach was giving her supplements. Her performance on Oprah's show, described by one sports commentator as "squirm-inducing", did little to win over the public.

It is difficult to think of any celebrity of recent years whose misconduct has so utterly undermined what he or she represented as Armstrong's. Tiger Woods grovelled his apology for infidelity, but the worst he had really done was contradict the family-man image he had exploited in creating the Woods brand. There was no sense that this had any relation to his talent with a golf club. One of the most virtuoso public apologies was that of actor Hugh Grant on the Jay Leno Show, where, in admitting that he was "disloyal, shabby and goatish", he made his dalliance with prostitute Divine Brown seem like just the kind of oafish but forgivably charming moral lapses one of his characters might bumble into.

Most of these other celebrities were able to leave their indiscretions behind and get on with their work. They kept their awards and trophies. Momentarily, they had appeared rather squalid, but the world got over that.

However, it has become almost impossible to still see Armstrong as a hero and champion (though some of his most loyal supporters do). He deceived us by making us believe he was a pure, unadulterated product of human self-discipline and then, when accusations emerged that he was not, persistently denied it.

But it may be that enough of the American public still yearn to forgive. And that is why many a guest appears on Oprah: to appeal to the audience's desire to experience their own catharsis through the act of emotional generosity of absolving someone else. This is the place where Armstrong stands most chance of being viewed not as a criminal in the dock, but as a human being on a "journey"; one who may have made errors and have flaws, but nevertheless represents something still admirable. It seems unlikely that this is a place where he will be skewered, as Richard Nixon was in 1977 by David Frost.

The problem with choosing to speak on Oprah, however, is that some of the public disappointment is not just in him, but in a whole culture. There is the sneaking fear that the doping scandal says something worrying about a whole way of life and American philosophy. Armstrong, after all, has long been an advocate of the art of positive thinking, of the triumph of the will over all else – including cancer.

He was the man who came through after testicular cancer spread to his lungs and brain, saying it was the "best thing that ever happened to me". But when it seems as if that willpower, while driving him to two-wheeled glory, may have also permitted him to deceive those around him and prolong a corrupt culture within his own sport, then it starts to appear profoundly amoral and unheroic.

In the dock alongside Armstrong is positive thinking itself. This is why it's rather interesting that his "mother confessor" should be positivity queen Winfrey. There has been plenty of speculation about what she will ask Armstrong. But to my mind, the story that she might be best to draw out is one in which his doping was a by-product of a brilliant and over-reaching will, one that would stop at nothing.

It is a lesson in when it is appropriate to glorify that willpower, and when to limit it. If she ekes out this story, then America, and the world, could continue to relate to Armstrong. We could use his story as a prompt for self-examination, and for reflection on the notion that victory is not everything; it's how you do it that matters.