With no tears and little emotion, Lance Armstrong acknowledged that he won all seven of his record Tour de France championships with the help of performance-enhancing drugs and that he acted as a bully who needed to “win at all costs” in the first of his two-part interview with Oprah Winfrey on Thursday night.
Armstrong added that he believed then, as he does now, that winning cycling’s most grueling race multiple times would have been impossible without the help of banned substances during what he characterized as the EPO era.
“That’s like saying. ‘We have to have air in our tires or water in our bottles,’ ” Armstrong told Winfrey when asked if he felt that in order to keep winning, he had to keep doping. “That was, in my view, part of the job.”
The interview, taped Monday in an Austin hotel and billed as “Oprah and Lance Armstrong: The Worldwide Exclusive,” concludes Friday night.
Winfrey opened the program by simply asking for “Yes” or “No” questions. And Armstrong, seated in an upholstered chair across from her in a navy blazer and light blue shirt, ticked off one affirmation after another. He had used EPO, blood doping, transfusions, testosterone and human growth hormone in one cocktail or another to elevate his strength and endurance for each Tour win from 1999 to 2005.
At the time, Armstrong said, he didn’t view it as wrong. Nor did he fear getting caught, given the fact that the sport didn’t test athletes during the off-season and his own wiles about following a schedule that ensured no trace of the substances would be in his system during races themselves.
As accusations mounted that he was cheating, Armstrong even looked up the word “cheat” in the dictionary and decided it didn’t apply, given that it meant “to gain an advantage on a rival or foe.”
“I didn’t view [doping] that way,” he said. “I viewed it as a level playing field.”
Today, having been stripped of every cycling achievement since 1998, including an Olympic bronze medal, losing his seat on the board of the Livestrong Foundation he started to help those facing a cancer diagnosis and losing his lucrative corporate sponsorships, Armstrong said he understands that not only what he did was wrong, but that he was a bully in the way he went about his career and protecting the lies and the myth it was cloaked in.
Asked why he was confessing now, Armstrong said: “I will start saying this is too late. It’s too late probably for most people. And that’s my fault. I view this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times.”
If it was a first step on Armstrong’s road to redemption after being stripped of his seven Tour de France title and banned from competition for life, it was a baby step. And he may not cover that road in a lifetime of apologies.
While the American public may forgive Armstrong, news that the disgraced champion had chosen Winfrey’s program as the setting for his confession after more than a decade of vehement denial was met with ridicule overseas, characterized in the British media as “a tawdry publicity stunt.”
And David Howman, director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency, made clear earlier this week that no televised tell-all would have any bearing on a serious re-consideration of his exile from sport. Nothing short of a full confession under oath, in which Armstrong discloses everything he knows about doping in professional cycling, would warrant revisiting his lifetime ban from competition, Howman said.
Armstrong referred to himself as “flawed” more than once. Other times, he referred to his actions in the third person, almost clinically, as if studying a pathology.
Diagnosed with testicular cancer in October 1996, Armstrong launched his Livestrong Foundation in 1997. Through its yellow plastic bracelets proclaiming the organization’s name, he was largely responsible for a paradigm shift among millions diagnosed with cancer. Rather than cancer victims, they identified themselves as cancer survivors.
But the fight he summoned to defeat cancer, Armstrong suggested, bled over into his competitive life with regrettable effect.
“Before my diagnosis, I would say I was a competitor, but I wasn’t a fierce competitor,” Armstrong told Winfrey. “In an odd way, that process turned me into a person that was truly win-at-all-costs. I will do anything I have to to survive. And that’s good! And I took that attitude — that ruthless, relentless attitude — right into cycling. And that’s bad.”
Presented with video clips of him lying under oath and mocking skeptics who doubted the “miracle” of his achievements, Armstrong responded with nervous laughter and conceded that he was “a jerk.”
Armstrong didn’t simply deny his doping: He attacked his accusers, calling one former teammate’s wife “crazy,” implied that a masseuse was “a whore,” sued London’s Sunday Times for libel in 2004 , collecting a $1.5 million settlement.
And after former teammate Tyler Hamilton disclosed on “60 Minutes” in 2011 that he had seen Armstrong use performance-enhancing drugs, Armstrong confronted him in an Aspen restaurant and vowed to “make your life a living hell.”
While conceding the veracity of many such witnesses against him, Armstrong took issue with several of the charges and characterizations in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s nearly 1,000-page report that led to his downfall in October.
Armstrong flatly denied that he ever ordered a teammate to dope in order to remain on the U.S. Postal Service team. And he insisted that a six-figure donation to cycling’s international governing body was not a payment to make a positive drug test disappear.