Chicago: "I view this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times" is how Lance Armstrong neatly summed up the doping scandal that stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles and sank his career.
And he made that confession to Oprah Winfrey on Thursday with startling equanimity. He may have been nervous, but he didn't look uncomfortable. Armstrong appeared as reasoned and dispassionate telling the truth as he did all those years that he so fluently and convincingly spun a lie. "I'm a flawed character," he said.
Armstrong described his situation now as a "process," and it was hard not to see his candour as just another step in a new battle, not for victory, but for containing loss. He touched his face, which is often a tell. But he said all the right things, with surprising ease. Then again, rigour and focused self-discipline are his trademarks.
"People who believed in me and believed me have every right to feel betrayed," he said earnestly but not emotionally. "I will spend the rest of my life trying to earn back trust and apologize to people."
Armstrong said what had to be said ("all the fault and all the blame falls on me"), but the interview was strangely low on energy and emotion. Candour is not the same as catharsis. His confession wasn't just about sports ' it was supposed to be a watershed moment of love lost and betrayal.
Winfrey, who split the interview over two nights to help her struggling cable channel, OWN, did her best to get answers, but she didn't get all of them, and she didn't pierce his armour. Armstrong isn't just an athlete who lied about drug use; he was the cheating cad in one of the great American love stories. For men at least, Armstrong was, up until his free fall, one of the most romantic figures since another Armstrong, Neil, walked on the moon in 1969.
There are other sports heroes. But Armstrong was a New World star in the European sport of cycling whose improbable comeback story defied the odds and blunted the cynicism of the age: he was struck by testicular cancer at 25 and went on to beat Europe's best in the Tour de France seven years in a row ' and also fathered five children, three with his first wife and two with his current girlfriend, Anna Hansen. He dated Sheryl Crow and Tory Burch, and while he wasn't known for his pleasing personality, his goodness seemed unimpeachable thanks to his foundation, Livestrong, one of the country's biggest cancer charities.
Armstrong said he was caught up in his own myth and explained that after surviving cancer, he was "ruthlessly" determined to win at all costs. He threw in some family back story of childhood hardship, just enough to give his aggressive campaign to discredit truth tellers a mitigating context, without turning mawkish. He admitted with a rueful smile to being a bully but said he never directly instructed teammates to take performance-enhancing drugs. There was a ghostly trace of boyish charm when he said things like "I'm not the most believable guy in the world, I understand that, but I did not do that."
He did admit to taking performance-enhancing drugs, saying he saw it as necessary, "like air in my tires." He stopped short of saying that everybody did it, but did say that many, many others did the same, and he felt no guilt because he thought he was merely making "a level playing field."
But when the questions veered to his behaviour toward other people, including friends he betrayed and colleagues he calumniated, he talked about himself almost in the second person, distancing himself from the man he was before the interview took place.
When Winfrey asked him rather incredulously how he could attack and sue people who he knew were telling the truth, Armstrong described it as a "major flaw" in the character of "a guy who expected to get whatever he wanted, and to control every outcome." He called that behaviour "inexcusable."
Yet he admitted that he didn't feel guilty or torn at the time. "No, that was the scariest part." Actually, the scariest part was that as he was setting the record straight, he seemed the same as when he was distorting it beyond belief. NYT News Service