After a damning U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report, retirement from his foundation, and years of lawsuits and accusations from his former teammates and associates, Lance Armstrong took his turn at a confessional, in the form of Oprah Winfrey. Stripped of seven Tour de France titles, the legendary athlete sat down with the legendary interviewer to come clean, and confirmed almost everything. Here are the best bits of Thursday night’s broadcast.
The tell-all interview started out as bluntly as possible: with yes or no questions. No mushy-gushy Oprah sentimentality here. “Did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?” she asked. “Yes,” Armstrong replied. A series of question confirm what has been reported for the past few months: the seven-time Tour de France winner used performance-enhancing methods to win in each victory. The last proved to be the most revealing about the widespread use of drugs within the cycling world. “In your opinion, was it humanly possible to win the Tour de France, seven times in a row, without doping?” Oprah asked.
“In my opinion, no.” Lance replied. He added that there were an estimated “five guys” who rode without the help of drugs during his days.
Why Now Admit It?
After years of vehemently denying the endless string of allegations, Winfrey is right to wonder why Armstrong is deciding to come clean now. “I view this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times,” he said. “I know the truth. The truth isn’t what was out there. The truth isn’t what I said.” (Tell us something we don’t know, Lance.) “It’s just this mythic perfect story and it wasn’t true,” he admitted, and said after years of crusading it was time to get out of the business of calling those who told the truth about him liars. This is a come-clean moment to top the best of them.
How Did It Work?
For years, the anti-doping tests weren’t sophisticated enough to catch the methods used by Armstrong and his teammates. In fact, Armstrong took—and passed—more than 500 drug tests during his career (retrospective testing had positive results for drugs that were previously untraceable). When Winfrey asked, Armstrong dismissed any fear of getting caught. “There was no testing out of competition … so you’re not gonna get caught, because you’re clean at the races,” he says. “It’s just a question of scheduling.” So, how did it work, she asked. Lance gave a little chuckle at the enormity of the question. “My cocktail was only EPO, but not a lot, transfusions, and testosterone, which in a weird way I almost justified with my history of testicular cancer,” he explains. And of course, getting the drugs out of his system before the tests.
The Last Time I Crossed That Line…
Armstrong’s only beef is with the USADA’s claim that the cyclist continued to dope during his remarkable comeback a few years ago, following his victory in the 2005 Tour de France: “The last time I crossed that line was 2005.” This goes against a host of allegations and testimony, but he stuck with it, saying he absolutely did not use banned substances during his attempts at the 2009 and 2010 competition.
Were You a Bully?
It’s hard to read reports of Armstrong’s behavior around teammates and not imagine him as a power-hungry monster. By his own admission, that’s not too far from the truth. “Uh yeah, yeah, I was a bully,” he admitted. “I was a bully in the sense that I tried to control the narrative, and if I didn’t like what somebody says … I tried to take control of that. Say that’s a lie, they’re liars.” But—contrary to many reports—Armstrong half-heartedly said he never pressured teammates into doping or fired them if they refused. Winning was the most important, and doping before a race “was like saying we have to have air in the tires or water in the bottles.”
Dr. Ferrari Was a Good Man
Much of the 150-plus pages of the USADA report on Armstrong’s doping revolved around Michele Ferrari, an Italian sports doctor who allegedly regimented the team’s drug use and the secret methods they employed. Winfrey played a recording of a 2005 sworn deposition in which Armstrong denies ever even discussing performance-enhancing drugs with the doctor. “Would that be your same response today?” she asked. Armstrong, who seemed like he was defending Ferrari earlier, calling him a “good man,” said, “No, my response on most of these things would be different today.” Despite the allegations otherwise, he said Ferrari was not the mastermind behind the team’s doping program.
Fame is known to exaggerate a character, and Oprah uses two examples: the humanitarian and the jerk. “I don’t know if you pulled those two words out of the air, jerk and humanitarian,” he replied. “I would say I was both and now we’re certainly seeing more of the jerk part.” The interview hit its most revealing at this point, with Armstrong calling his desire to win “ruthless,” called himself “an arrogant prick,” and admitted he was, and probably still is, “deeply flawed.” He used to feel victimized by the allegations, he said. But no longer. “Listen, I deserve it.”
Was It Wrong?
The winning was so assumed it was “phoned in,” and the fun part was the process, the preparations, Armstrong said. Doping was so second nature, he didn’t even believe it was cheating because to him, drugs were just a way of leveling the playing field. There was no advantage gained. This powerful exchange ensues:
“Was it a big deal to you? Did it feel wrong?” Oprah asks.
“No,” he says. “Scary.”
“Did you feel bad about it?”
“No, even scarier.”
“Did you feel any way that you were cheating?”
Lifetime of Apologies
Armstrong owned his bully status when he began suing anyone and everyone who tried to expose his drug use, and he said he’ll spend the rest of his life trying to earn back trust from former teammates, associates, and those who took his side. There is one allegation he still denies: former rider Floyd Landis said that in 2001 Armstrong failed a drug test before the Tour de Suisse and then paid off officials to cover it up. “There was no deal,” he argues back. “This is impossible for me to answer this question and have anybody believe it, [but] it was not in exchange for any cover-up.”
I’m Happier Today
Armstrong acknowledged he has lifetime of apologies ahead, and some will be especially hard. He didn’t agree to explain the truth behind a lawsuit against former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife, Betsey, who said she heard Armstrong listing banned substances he used to a doctor, but said they have not made peace with him yet. “They’ve been hurt too badly.” Despite the daunting confrontations ahead, Armstrong seemed to feel a burden lifting during the admissions. “I am happier today than I was then. For a whole host of reasons,” he says. “I’m happier today. Not yesterday.”
To Be Honest, Oprah, We Sued So Many People …
When Winfrey asked what he would say to former masseuse Emma O’Reilly, who alleged that he had a doctor backdate a cortisone prescription to hide his use before a race, Armstrong admitted she was right, but didn’t seem to remember suing her. “To be honest, Oprah, we sued so many people,” he said of filing lawsuits against those he knew were telling the truth. “It’s a major flaw, and it’s a guy who expected to get whatever he wanted and to control every outcome, and it’s inexcusable. When I say there are people who will hear this and never forgive me, I understand that.”
In 2008 Armstrong came out of retirement, which he says was the beginning of the end. He said he never would have been caught without the criminal investigation that launched around that time. There’s clear regret in his face when he says his chances of still holding his record titles would be much better if he had stayed retired. “I just assumed the stories would continue for a long time,” he said. But they’re no longer stories and Armstrong is no longer the vilified hero—or one of the world’s top athletes. He says he’d “do anything” to go back to that day and not fight the investigation like he did. “I wouldn’t sue them, I’d listen,” he said. He ended with a statement of the obvious: “I stand on no moral platform here.” We knew that a long time ago, Lance.