NEW YORK—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 on 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 using through most his cycling career a cocktail of drugs, including testosterone, cortisone, human growth hormone and the blood-booster EPO (erythropoietin).
Yet, like always, Armstrong couldn’t help fighting.
He called his doping regimen very simple and conservative, rejecting volumes of evidence by the US 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 he wasn’t the kingpin of the doping program on his teams, as the antidoping agency claimed, and that he was just doping like the rest of his teammates were at the time.
Ending years of denial, Armstrong revealed his darkest secrets in an interview at his hometown of Austin, Texas.
Right from the start and more than two dozen times during the first of a two-part interview, the disgraced former cycling champion acknowledged what he had lied about repeatedly for years and what had been one of the worst-kept secrets for the better part of a week: He was the ringleader of an elaborate doping scheme on a US Postal Service (USPS) team that swept him to the top of the podium at the Tour de France time after time.
“I’m a flawed character,” he said.
Armstrong was direct and matter-of-fact, neither pained nor defensive. There were no tears and very few laughs. He dodged few questions and refused to implicate anyone else, even as he said it was humanly impossible to win seven straight Tours without doping.
“I’m not comfortable talking about other people,” he said. “I don’t want to accuse anybody.”
Whether his confession will help or hurt Armstrong’s bruised reputation and his already tenuous defense in two pending lawsuits, and possibly a third, remains to be seen. Either way, a story that seemed too good to be true—cancer survivor returns to win one of sport’s most grueling events seven times in a row—was revealed to be just that.
“This story was so perfect for so long. It’s this myth, this perfect story, and it wasn’t true,” he said.
‘They’ll never forgive me’
Armstrong said he had doped beginning in the mid-1990s through 2005, the year he won his record seventh Tour. He said he took EPO, but “not a lot,” and said he had rationalized his use of testosterone because one of his testicles had been removed during his battle against cancer.
At times during the interview, which was to resume on Friday, Armstrong seemed genuinely humble and said 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.
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 his 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, he acknowledged calling Betsy Andreu crazy. But, with a suggestion of a smirk, said he never claimed she was fat.
The closest Armstrong came to contrition was when Winfrey asked him about his apologies in recent days, notably to Andreu and Betsy. Armstrong said she was jealous of his success and invented stories about his doping as part of a long-running vendetta.
He also called London Sunday Times reporter David Walsh, who wrote about Armstrong and his role in cycling’s doping culture. Armstrong subsequently sued for libel in Britain and won a $500,000 judgment against the newspaper, which is now suing to get the money back.
Armstrong said he had been a bully his whole life, before contradicting himself later, saying he became a bully after he survived cancer and resumed his cycling career.
And when he said he never failed a drug test, 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 he received a backdated prescription from a doctor after he tested positive for cortisone at the 1999 Tour.
‘Step in right direction’
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.
When Winfrey asked if he would cooperate with the US Anti-Doping Agency in building doping cases against others, 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 said, 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 antidoping agency, according to people close to him.
Antidoping officials need to hear more from Armstrong than an apology and a rough outline of his doping. “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 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, president of the International Cycling Union and a member of the International Olympic Committee. At least two of Armstrong’s teammates have claimed the cycling union accepted a bribe from Armstrong to cover up at least one positive test.
With Winfrey, Armstrong denied that he had bribed sports officials to hide an alleged positive EPO test at the Tour of Switzerland.
No direct apology
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 he was not cheating because he considered cycling to be a level playing field then, with all the top riders using drugs.
Throughout the 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.”