“Did you ever take banned substances to improve your performance?”
Within the first two lines of his interview with Oprah Winfrey on Thursday night, former celebrity cyclist Lance Armstrong wheeled out the words the world has been waiting for, officially confirming that he was “doping” (read: partaking in blood transfusions, testosterone, human growth hormone, Cortisone, and the like) during the time of his seven Tour de France wins. The rest of the hour-and-a-half sit-down, the first of two airing this week, was just a carefully worded (and rather repetitive) expansion of that not-quite-shocking sentiment.
In stark contrast with the comfy and mildly tropical hotel room backdrop that framed it, the vibe between Winfrey and Armstrong in the pre-taped segment was tense and harsh. Both parties clearly had their agendas and came in prepared to uphold them with all their might. Winfrey emerged with the upper hand in the end, thanks to her probing, almost subjective line of questioning. But Armstrong did his best to hold his own. And by that I mean, upholding some sort of sense of dignity after calling himself a “bully” and a “jerk” and stating, much to Winfrey’s pseudo-hidden disgust, that he didn’t actually consider his drug use cheating.
“The definition of cheat is to gain advantage on a rival or foe,” Armstrong explained to Winfrey in one particularly section of the proceedings. “I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.”
Although Winfrey seemed completely unconvinced, she kinda backed up this statement while featuring a compelling clip of Armstrong accepting his final Tour de France championship before retirement. In the video, Armstrong loosely denies doping claims, saying that “there are no secrets” in cycling and dubbing the Tour a “hard sporting event” that requires “hard work” to win.
Watching that video alongside Winfrey, Armstrong seemed the most genuinely ashamed of his former self. “I’m definitely embarrassed,” a watery-eyed Armstrong said in response. “That’s what you leave with? You can leave with better than that, Lance. That was lame.”
Winfrey didn’t agree with Armstrong’s last personal putdown in words, and honestly, she didn’t have to. Her pointedly squinted expression said it all. She seemed more accepting earlier on in the evening, listening to Armstrong candidly relate his Tour title and Olympic medal-stripping choices to his infamous battle with testicular cancer.
So said the former Livestrong ambassador, “Before my diagnosis, I was a competitor. But I wasn’t a fierce competitor.”
“When I was diagnosed and I was being treated, I said, ‘I will do anything I have to to survive.;” he continued. “I took that attitude — that ruthless, relentless and win at all costs attitude — and took it right into cycling.”
Armstrong went on to dub himself a control freak of sorts, stating that after not being able to control his cancer, he felt compelled to overexert himself in his career. This lead to him being “a bully” towards his teammates.
He explained, “I was a bully … in the sense that I tried to control the narrative. If I didn’t like what somebody said … I tried to control that and said, ‘That’s a lie. They’re liars.’”
When Winfrey turned the conversation to others (his former teammates and their wives, doping assistant and Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, team masseuse Emma O’Reilly), Armstrong put up an obvious front, clearly afraid to put anyone other than himself under fire.
“I deserve this,” Armstrong said. “I made my decisions. They are my mistake. And I’m sitting here today to acknowledge that and to say I’m sorry for that.”
Armstrong made a lot of sweeping, PR-approved self-blaming statements over the 90 minutes, probably to try and take the attention away from some of the more vivid details Winfrey pressed upon. At one point, she discussed an alleged incident in which Armstrong and his cycling team were taking EPO (Erythropoietin) in their trailer as fans waited outside. Hoping to keep their secret under wraps, they supposedly stuffed the syringes in Coke cans.
Armstrong said he didn’t quite remember that specific incident, but he didn’t deny it either. “We were all grown men, we all made our choices,” he noted.
One thing Armstrong would confirm is that although he did “dope” up until 2005, the year of his first retirement and final Tour win, he was not under the influence while competing in 2009 and 2011 races. He still did decent those times around, earning third and 23rd place titles. But neither achievement could compare to his cycling heyday.
“The story was so perfect for so long,” Armstrong said to Winfrey at one point. “You work on the disease. You win the Tour de France seven times. You have a happy marriage. You have children.”
“Now, the story is so bad and so toxic.”
From the sounds of it, things were toxic all along.
Armstrong and Winfrey’s story continues as OWN airs the second half of their interview Friday, Jan. 18 at 9 p.m. ET.