Keeping Score

How Lance Armstrong Came Clean to Oprah

Lance Armstrong offered an apology. But with him, you'll never know what's real.

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George Burns / REUTERS / Harpo Studios, Inc / Handout

Armstrong being interviewed by Winfrey in Austin on Jan. 14, 2013

Oprah Winfrey could have ended her interview with Lance Armstrong after four minutes or so, probably. At the beginning of her television event on Jan. 17, aired on her network, OWN, Armstrong swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and answered Oprah’s yes-or-no questions, one by one.

“Did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?”

“Was one of those banned substances EPO?”

“Did you ever blood-dope or use blood transfusions to enhance your cycling performance?

“Did you ever use any other banned substances like testosterone, cortisone or human growth hormone?”

“In all seven of your Tour de France victories, did you ever take banned substances or blood dope?”

His responses: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Turn off the cameras. Shut it down. Because after all the lying, all the attacks and lawsuits against people who were telling the truth — Armstrong later agreed he was a “bully” — how can you truly believe anything he says from this point forward? “I’ve got no cred,” Armstrong later told Oprah.

Well, Armstrong’s requisite self-flagellation was true. Armstrong called himself a “jerk” and an “arrogant prick.” Tough to argue against that. But what’s Armstrong’s true motivation here? Does he sincerely feel sorry for what he’s done? Or is all this an exercise in image rehab, an effort to replenish his bank account? Armstrong didn’t break down in tears during his talk, and he gave fairly clinical responses. It’s just hard to read a man’s heart when he’s been so heartless.

(MORE: Lance Armstrong’s Confession and the Psychology of the Competitor)

Armstrong also denied that he doped during the 2009 and 2010 tours, when he made his comeback, even though a damning U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report said he did. Armstrong refuted a claim from one of his former teammates, Christian Vande Velde, that he threatened to kick Vande Velde off the team if he didn’t dope. He said that a donation to cycling’s world governing body, the International Cycling Union (UCI), wasn’t a payoff to cover up a positive drug test.

That’s all impossible to take at face value.

Armstrong did answer no to one of Winfrey’s opening questions: Did he think it was humanly possibly to win the Tour de France without doping? That was a predictable out: I just got caught up in cycling’s culture of doping. Armstrong later said that while he was winning his Tours, doping did not feel wrong. “Scary,” he admitted. Did you feel bad about it? Winfrey asked. “No,” Armstrong responded. “Even scarier.”

(MORE: Can It Get Any Worse for Lance Armstrong?)

Armstrong said he did not even feel as if he was cheating. “Scariest,” he said. While the “drug cheat” label flew at Armstrong during his cycling career, he told Winfrey he would turn to the dictionary. “The definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe,” Armstrong says. “I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.”

During the discussion, Armstrong traced the psychological roots of his charade back to his battle with cancer. Before his diagnosis, Armstrong said, he was a competitor but not a fierce competitor. “In an odd way, that process [fighting testicular cancer] turned me into a person [who] was truly win-at-all-costs,” Armstrong said. “When I was diagnosed and I was treated, I said I would do anything I had to do to survive. And that’s good. And I took that, that attitude, that ruthless and relentless and win-at-all-costs attitude, and I took it right into cycling … and that’s bad.”

(VIDEO: 10 Questions for Lance Armstrong)

Armstrong had a few uncomfortable, if not maddening, moments during the interview. He denied USADA’s conclusion that he and his U.S. Postal Service team “ran the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen,” saying that it could not have been “bigger” than the “East German doping program of the ’70s and ’80s.” Huh? So he’s been studying East Germany? And even if it wasn’t as organized as East Germany’s — and who can prove that? — would that make Armstrong’s tactics any better?

(MORE: Why Lance Armstrong Is Finally Coming Clean)

He said the doping regimen was “very simple.” Armstrong’s “cocktail,” he told Winfrey, was “only EPO — but not a lot — transfusions and testosterone.” Sure, just a little combo of EPO, transfusions and testosterone. Like taking vitamins.

Armstrong refused to address the testimony of Betsy Andreu, the wife of ex-Armstrong teammate Frankie Andreu, who said that while Armstrong was being treated for cancer, she heard him tell doctors that he had used performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong has attacked Andreu for years. “I did call her crazy,” Armstrong said, while smiling and even laughing a bit. Armstrong may have been laughing at the absurdity of his behavior — I need to chuckle at my stupidity to keep from crying. But again, why assume any innocence in Armstrong? No matter what, it was a weird time to smile.

Oprah’s interview continues Jan. 18. Armstrong will address losing his sponsorship, disappointing Livestrong supporters and other topics. (Expect a ratings drop.) I would still like to hear more direct questions about Armstrong’s financial motivations. Forget about the need to compete and always win; how much did your rock-star lifestyle fuel the lies? And does Armstrong concur that his cancer-awareness work, though laudable, also enriched him personally, as it raised his profile and compelled companies to toss money at him for speaking engagements, endorsements, etc.?

(VIEWPOINT: Why Lance Armstrong Couldn’t Stop Himself)

If Armstrong had never returned to cycling and raced in the 2009 and 2010 tours, he doesn’t think he would have been caught. “We wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t come back,” Armstrong says. In 2010 Floyd Landis — who Armstrong claims wanted a spot on his racing team but wasn’t offered one — accused Armstrong of using performance-enhancing drugs. The Department of Justice then opened up an investigation, and although the Feds dropped the case in February of last year, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency continued probing.

Toward the end of the interview, Armstrong seemed to express some sincere regret about fighting USADA’s investigation and suing the organization. “Oprah, I’d do anything, I’d do anything, to go back to that day,” Armstrong says. (If only Armstrong had shown such spirited remorse for bullying targets like Andreu, former masseuse Emma O’Reilly and British journalist David Walsh). “I wouldn’t fight. I wouldn’t sue them. I’d listen.” Armstrong says he wishes he had come clean a little earlier, a move that could have given him a shred of extra credibility with sponsors, his foundation and his fans.

That’s fairly easy to believe. I think.

MORE: Who Cares if Lance Armstrong Is Sorry?