Armstrong Comes Clean … Sort Of

Lance Armstrong sits down for an interview with Oprah

Lance Armstrong in 2009
Lance Armstrong in 2009 (by Josh Hallett (via Wikimedia Commons))

If you've been a naughty public figure in America, and all attempts at damage control are failing, you will inevitably be called to the principal's office. You can almost hear it over the nation's P.A. system: "Lance Armstrong, please report to Oprah Winfrey's office immediately."

And so it was when Armstrong perched on a chair with Winfrey at the Austin Four Seasons for what many assumed would be his highly anticipated public confession, looking as if he were glancing around for the paddle.

Armstrong has plenty to worry about these days, as last August the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, citing "disclosures … by more than a dozen witnesses who agreed to testify and provide evidence" of a team doping scandal, ruled that Armstrong would be banned from professional cycling and must relinquish his seven Tour de France titles. Months of appeals have only resulted in Armstrong's resignation from the Livestrong Foundation and waving goodbye to former sponsors, some of whom may sue the former cyclist for fraud by way of farewell. Armstrong had stubbornly continued to deny wrongdoing, even as evidence mounted against him. The big question tonight was whether he would finally come clean.

And did he admit to doping? Yes, as media outlets nationwide have been saying he would all week:

Oprah: "Yes or no: Did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?"
Armstrong: "Yes."

But surely there was more to be said of the next hour and a half than that one little word. Here are some of the highlights from the first segment of the two-night interview:

• Armstrong sounded eerily like a Nineties-era Bill Clinton as he mused over definitions of the words "dope" and "cheat." He claimed to have looked the latter up in the dictionary when he needed reassurance; since that definition included gaining an advantage over others to achieve, he said he felt better. As blood-doping and EPO had been a sportwide custom for decades, he argued ("to say that [our operation] was bigger than the East German doping programs of the Seventies and Eighties just isn't true"), he was merely going along with an overwhelming trend.

• That tone remained throughout the segment. Far from penitent, he volunteered little, even in defense of himself. If the former champion seemed eager to impart anything, it was in frequent references to "the diagnosis" or "the disease," referring to his battle with testicular cancer. Several times he rushed to equate the fierce drive that is required to fight cancer with his subsequent determination to win races at any cost.

• He denied berating teammates or encouraging others to dope, but he admitted to being a bully when asked. In the next breath, however, he went on to claim that he was a bully " … only in the sense that I tried to control the narrative [by saying], 'That's a lie. They're liars.'"

• In reference to strong-arming others to dope: "There was a level of expectation, we expected guys to perform, to win, but I certainly did not do that." Other non-statements, some unsolicited, included deflections such as, "It was a competitive team. We were all grown men. We all made our choices."

• Though a part owner of the United Sates Postal Service team, he claimed a surprisingly low management profile. "Look, I was the team leader, I wasn't, like, a general manager or anything."

The Oprah Winfrey Network is sure to be enjoying enormous ratings for this national non-event. Tune in tomorrow night at 8pm local time for further insights from bicycling's bad boy and America's headmistress.

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Lance Armstrong, Oprah Winfrey

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