“Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” Did Lance Armstrong take performance-enhancing drugs? Use banned substances including blood-boosting EPO? Transfuse his own blood? Use testosterone, cortisone and human growth hormone? Did he cheat in all seven Tour de France wins? Oprah Winfrey opened her interview of the disgraced cyclist with a series of yes-or-no questions. He copped to the charges. He can never again play the innocent.
But he still seemed to play the victim. Saying “I’m a flawed character” is not the same as owning up. Armstrong said that everyone was cheating so he hadn’t gained an unfair advantage. (“I didn’t invent the culture, and I didn’t try to stop the culture.” ) He said—evidence to the contrary—that he didn’t have any better drugs or support in concealing his doping than any other rider. He said he didn’t pressure teammates to dope and claimed not to have been doping when he made his cycling comeback in 2009. And while he admitted being a bully—“I tried to control the narrative”–he didn’t apologize to the many people he defrauded and defamed for more than a decade. He admitted that he tried to discredit Betsy Andreu, the wife of a former colleague, by calling her crazy but added, weirdly, that he had never called her fat. He said he had sued the Postal Service team’s former masseuse to protect himself from her testimony about his doping, but didn’t apologize for calling her a prostitute and an alcoholic.
As the interview with Oprah went on—the second half will be broadcast Friday night—it became clear that with Armstrong, there is no such thing as the whole truth. And his demeanor was even more disturbing than his verbal admissions (and dodges). He acknowledged that his many televised denials from past years were “scary” to watch. But he was equally scary on Thursday evening. His only genuine emotion seemed to be nervousness—and self-pity. He said many of the right things: “I disrespected the rules…I dishonored the sport.” But he seemed to lack remorse. And his credibility—for lack of a better word—is so thin that it may no longer matter what he says.
The first half of the interview didn’t address the widespread suspicion that Armstrong is speaking out now only because he hopes to have his lifetime ban lifted. Olympic sprinter Marion Jones went to jail after admitting she used banned substances. Will Lance even pay the price of being prohibited from competing in triathlons? From a business perspective, Armstrong would be a big draw for crowds and media coverage. But the immediate social-media reaction to the interview was scorching. Virtually no commentators were surprised by the content of what Armstrong said, but they were universally repelled by his manner.
There was debate about whether Oprah could have or should have been tougher. But there was no argument about whether Lance Armstrong is a liar, a cheat, a creep—and a very strange man. The myth of Lance Armstrong pales in comparison to the question of how he could ever have been anyone’s hero.