In an extensive interview with Oprah Winfrey that was shown over two nights, Lance Armstrong admitted publicly for the first time that he doped throughout his cycling career. He revealed that all seven of his Tour de France victories were fueled by doping, that he never felt bad about cheating, and that he had covered up a positive drug test at the 1999 Tour with a backdated doctor’s prescription for banned cortisone.
Even with all that, the interview will most likely be remembered for what it was missing.
Armstrong had not subjected himself to questioning from anyone in the news media since United States antidoping officials laid out their case against him in October. He chose not to appeal their ruling, leaving him with a lifetime ban from Olympic sports.
He personally chose Winfrey for his big reveal, and it went predictably. Winfrey allowed him to share his thoughts and elicited emotions from him, but she consistently failed to ask critical follow-up questions that would have addressed the most vexing aspects of Armstrong’s deception.
She did not press him on who helped him dope or cover up his drug use for more than a decade. Nor did she ask him why he chose to take banned performance-enhancing substances even after cancer had threatened his life.
Winfrey also did not push him to answer whether he had admitted to doctors in an Indianapolis hospital in 1996 that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, a confession a former teammate and his wife claimed they overheard that day. To get to the bottom of his deceit, antidoping officials said, Armstrong has to be willing to provide more details.
“He spoke to a talk-show host,” David Howman, the director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said from Montreal on Friday. “I don’t think any of it amounted to assistance to the antidoping community, let alone substantial assistance. You bundle it all up and say, ‘So what?’
Jeffrey M. Tillotson, the lawyer for an insurance company that unsuccessfully withheld a $5 million bonus from Armstrong on the basis that he had cheated to win the Tour de France in 2004, said his client would make a decision over the weekend about whether to sue Armstrong. If it proceeds, the company, SCA Promotions, will seek $12 million, the total it paid Armstrong in bonuses and legal fees.
“It seemed to us that he was more sorry that he had been caught than for what he had done,” Tillotson said. “If he’s serious about rehabbing himself, he needs to start making amends to the people he bullied and vilified, and he needs to start paying money back.”
Armstrong, who said he once believed himself to be invincible, explained in the portion of the interview broadcast Friday night that he started to take steps toward redemption last month. Then, after dozens of questions had already been lobbed his way, he became emotional when he described how he told his 13-year-old son, Luke, that yes, his father had cheated by doping. That talk happened last month over the holidays, Armstrong said as he fought back tears.
“I said, listen, there’s been a lot of questions about your dad, my career, whether I doped or did not dope, and I’ve always denied, I’ve always been ruthless and defiant about that, which is probably why you trusted me, which makes it even sicker,” Armstrong said he told his son, the oldest of his five children. “I want you to know it’s true.”
At times, Winfrey’s interview seemed more like a therapy session than an inquisition, with Armstrong admitting that he was narcissistic and had been in therapy — and that he should be in therapy regularly because his life was so complicated.
In the end, the interview most likely accomplished what Armstrong had hoped: it was the vehicle through which he admitted to the public that he had cheated by doping, which he had lied about for more than a decade. But his answers were just the first step to clawing back his once stellar reputation.
On Friday, Armstrong appeared more contrite than he had during the part of the interview that was shown Thursday, yet he still insisted that he was clean when he made his comeback to cycling in 2009 after a brief retirement, an assertion the United States Anti-Doping Agency said was untrue. He also implied that his lifetime ban from all Olympic sports was unfair because some of his former teammates who testified about their doping and the doping on Armstrong’s teams received only six-month bans.
Richard Pound, the founding chairman of WADA and a member of the International Olympic Committee, said he was unmoved by Armstrong’s televised mea culpa.
“If what he’s looking for is some kind of reconstruction of his image, instead of providing entertainment with Oprah Winfrey, he’s got a long way to go,” Pound said Friday from his Montreal office.
Armstrong acknowledged to Winfrey during Friday’s broadcast that he has a long way to go before winning back the public’s trust. He said he understood why people recently turned on him because they felt angry and betrayed.
“I lied to you and I’m sorry,” he said before acknowledging that he might have lost many of his supporters for good. “I am committed to spending as long as I have to to make amends, knowing full well that I won’t get very many back.”
Armstrong also said that the scandal has cost him $75 million in lost sponsors, all of whom abandoned him last fall after Usada made public 1,000 pages of evidence that Armstrong had doped.
“In a way, I just assumed we would get to that point,” he said of his sponsors’ leaving. “The story was getting out of control.”
In closing her interview, Winfrey asked Armstrong a question that left him perplexed.
“Will you rise again?” she said.
Armstrong said: “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s out there.”
Then, as the interview drew to a close, Armstrong said: “The ultimate crime is the betrayal of these people that supported me and believed in me.”