The formerly defiant Lance Armstrong once said, “As long as I live, I will deny ever doping,” but sitting face to face with Oprah Winfrey in an interview that was broadcast Thursday, he reversed course.
With Winfrey, he lost his icy stare and buried his cutting words. Looking nervous and swallowing hard several times, he admitted to using through most his cycling career a cocktail of drugs, including testosterone, cortisone, human growth hormone and the blood booster EPO.
Yet, like always, Armstrong could not help fighting.
He called his doping regimen simple and conservative, rejecting volumes of evidence by the United States Anti-Doping Agency that the drug program on his Tour de France-winning teams was “the most sophisticated, organized and professionalized” doping scheme in the history of cycling.
He said that he was not the kingpin of the doping program on his teams, as the antidoping agency claimed, and that he was just doping the way the rest of his teammates were at the time.
He said he had doped, beginning in the mid-1990s, through 2005, the year he won his record seventh Tour. He said that he took EPO, but “not a lot,” and that he had rationalized his use of testosterone because one of his testicles had been removed during his battle against cancer. “I thought, Surely I’m running low,” he said of the banned testosterone he took to gain an edge in his performance.
At times during the interview, which will resume Friday night, Armstrong seemed genuinely humble, admitting that he was “a flawed character” and that he would spend the rest of his life trying to apologize to people and regain their trust.
“There will be people who hear this and never forgive me,” he said. “I understand that.”
But when asked about the people he had tried to crush while he tried to keep his doping secret — people like the former masseuse Emma O’Reilly or his former teammate Frankie Andreu and Andreu’s wife,
Betsy — he showed little contrition. Those are some of the people who claimed he had doped and who he subsequently publicly claimed were liars. He had called O’Reilly a prostitute and an alcoholic.
In the interview, Armstrong acknowledged calling Betsy Andreu crazy. But with a suggestion of a smirk, he said he never claimed she was fat.
He said he had been a bully his whole life, before contradicting himself a minute later, saying he became a bully only after he survived cancer and resumed his cycling career.
And when he said he never failed a drug test — saying, “I passed them because there was nothing in the system” — he contradicted himself again. When Winfrey asked if his urine samples from the 1999 Tour
retroactively tested positive for EPO, he said yes. When she pressed him, he admitted that he received a backdated prescription from a team doctor after he tested positive for cortisone at the 1999 Tour.
Armstrong did not delve into the details of his doping, and Winfrey never asked. He did not explain how it was done, who helped him do it or how, exactly, he perpetuated his myth for so long. He said he was not comfortable talking about other people when asked about the infamous Italian sports doctor Michele Ferrari, his former trainer, who is now serving a lifetime ban for doping his athletes.
When Winfrey asked if he would cooperate with the United States Anti-Doping Agency in building doping cases against others in the sport, he masterfully skirted the question.
Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the antidoping agency, called Armstrong’s admission “a step in the right direction.”
But it did not really matter what Armstrong told Winfrey in the interview, at least according to Tygart and other antidoping agency officials who hold the key to Armstrong’s future as a professional athlete.
Armstrong’s reason for coming clean was not to unburden himself of the deception he fought to keep secret for so long. It was to take the first step toward mitigating the lifetime ban from Olympic sports that he received from the United States Anti-Doping Agency in the fall, according to people close to him who did not want their names published because they wanted to stay in Armstrong’s good graces.
Antidoping officials need to hear more from Armstrong than just an apology and a rough outline of his doping. They need details. And lots of them.
“Anything he says on TV would have no impact whatsoever under the rules on his lifetime suspension,” Tygart said.
Armstrong, 41, wants to compete in triathlons and in running events again, but he is barred from many of those events because they are sanctioned by organizations that follow the World Anti-Doping Code. To get back into those events, he must tell antidoping officials details of who helped him dope, who knew about his doping and who helped him create one of the biggest cover-ups in the history of sports.
In digging up those details, Armstrong might be able to dig himself out of his lifetime ban in exchange for a reduced ban of, perhaps, eight years.
It might also shine the spotlight on some of the most powerful men in the sport of cycling, including Pat McQuaid, the president of the International Cycling Union and a current member of the International Olympic Committee, and Hein Verbruggen, a past president of the cycling union and a current honorary member of the I.O.C.
At least two of Armstrong’s teammates have claimed that the cycling union accepted a bribe from Armstrong to cover up at least one positive test. But only a small group of people would be able to prove those claims were true, and Armstrong is one of those people. With Winfrey, Armstrong denied that he had bribed sports officials to hide an alleged positive EPO test at the Tour of Switzerland.
In the end, though, Armstrong seemed to understand that his actions and lies were not normal, even in a sport that was rife with doping during the time he dominated it.
Winfrey asked him if he ever felt his doping was wrong, and he answered no, and then added that he realized that was scary.
When she asked him if he had ever felt bad about his doping, he said no, and then said, “Even scarier.”
Winfrey then asked, “Did you feel in any way that you were cheating?”
He said no, “that’s the scariest,” and went on to explain that he had even looked up the word “cheat” in the dictionary once to find out the exact meaning. He found it to be “gaining an advantage on a rival or foe” and convinced himself that he was not cheating because he considered cycling to be a level playing field then, with all the top riders using drugs.
But throughout Winfrey’s interview, Armstrong failed to do the one thing many people had been waiting for: he failed to apologize directly to all the people who believed in him, all the cancer survivors and cycling fans who thought his fairy-tale story was true.
Not once did he look into the camera and say, without qualification, “I’m sorry.”