Oprah interview Part 2: Lance Armstrong accepts little prospect of lifetime ban being lifted
Tears as Armstrong describes impact on family; rejects Tygart 'donation' claim and explains *that* maillot jaune pic
Lance Armstrong has acknowledged that there is little prospect of his lifetime ban from sport being lifted. The disgraced cyclist was speaking in part two of his confessional interview with Oprah Winfrey, which aired in the United States last night and mainly focused on the personal impact of his fall from grace as well as its impact on those closest to him.
For sheer televisual drama, nothing was going to beat the moment on Thursday evening when, at the start of part one of the interview, Armstrong confessed that he had doped his way to the seven Tour de France victories he was stripped of last year. As attention shifted to the impact of the scandal on his children and family, however, Armstrong struggled to remain composed.
Following the screening of the first part of the interview which had been recorded on Monday in Austin, Texas – there’s no way of knowing whether it was screened in real time, or whether the order of segments had been changed in evidence – much of the attention focused on Armstrong’s insistence that he had not doped following his comeback in 2009.
And while last night’s part two wasn’t so much about the bike, or at least Armstrong’s activities on it, the sporting side of things was revisited on a number of occasions.
Winfrey put it to him: “So you came back and you didn't believe it was possible to win seven Tours without doping but you came back not going to dope and you expected to win still?
"Yes, because I thought and still think the sport was very clean,” replied Armstrong. “There really was a major shift in the mid-2000s with the biological passports. I thought I was competing on a level playing field.
"I didn't expect to finish third - I expected to win like I always expected and at the end I said I just got beat by two guys who were better [Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck – ed]. It doesn't sound like what I would say."
The chat show host quizzed Armstrong about what it was he hoped to achieve from the interview, saying: “A lot of people think you're doing this so you can come back to sport?”
Potentially, Armstrong could see his lifetime ban reduced to a minimum of eight years, although USADA and WADA have both made it clear that nothing short of a full, frank confession that named names would even begin to make that a possibility. From the evidence of the past two evenings, Armstrong is a long way from doing that.
"If you're asking me if I want to compete again, the answer is hell yes, I'm a competitor,” he revealed. “It's what I've done all my life. I love to train. I love to race, I love to toe the line. And I don't expect it to happen."
He acknowledged he had no desire to compete in the Tour de France again – the most remote of prospects of course given the seven blank spaces from 1999 to 2005 that appear in the list of winners – but added “there are lots of other things I could do but can't do because of this punishment.
“If there is a window, would I like to run the Chicago Marathon when I'm 50? I would love to do that but I can't. I can't compete in any event that is sanctioned by a governing body. I would love the opportunity to compete but that isn't the reason why I'm doing this.
"It might not be the most popular answer but I think I deserve it, maybe not right now. When you see the punishment - I would go back and say you [the former team mates who testified against him] are trading my story for a six-month ban so I got a death penalty meaning I can't compete. I'm not saying that is unfair but it is different."
Winfrey asked him outright: “Are you hoping this conversation, your admission that you wished you had done things differently with USADA, that your lifetime ban will be lifted?”
"Er, selfishly, yes,” Armstrong conceded. “But realistically, I don't think that is going happen and I've got to live with that."
In November, a month after the UCI’s ratification of USADA’s decision, Armstrong had tweeted a picture of himself at home in Austin, surrounded by the seven framed maillots jaunes he had won between 1999 and 2005.
Winfrey asked him: “So was it just you being your cocky, arrogant, jerk self that sent that tweet of you lying there with all the jerseys?”
"Yeah, that was another mistake," accepted Armstrong.
The interviewer broke into laughter as she followed up the question. “The wolves are at your door and you tweet that. What was that?”
"That was just more defiance. What's scary is I thought it was a good idea at the time."
In the weeks preceding Armstrong posting that picture, he had not only had his lifetime ban confirmed as well as disqualification from results dating back to 1 August 1998, but also saw his sponsors desert him, most doing so in the space of 24 hours or so after the biggest of all, Nike, said it was pulling the plug.
Armstrong, speaking to one of the few people who could perhaps truly comprehend the magnitude of the figure, described it as a “seventy-five million dollar day.” Winfrey, a billionaire, almost seemed to be making a mental calculation to work out the impact of a similar hit on her own finances.
The financial meltdown for Armstrong won’t end there, of course, and it’s the desire to protect what he still has that is widely seen as the prime motivation behind his insistence he did not dope after 2005; a statute of limitations means that he is safe from legal action from sponsors and others in connection with doping prior to that date, but there is no such protection in relation to the period after he returned to the sport in 2009.
His admission to doping pre-2005 has however strengthened the claim of The Sunday Times to recover the out-of-court settlement it reached with Armstrong in 2006 after he sued it for libel.
That lawsuit followed its publication of extracts of LA Confidential, the book co-written by its chief sports writer David Walsh, which among other allegations against the cyclist included an assertion from Armstrong’s former masseuse, Emma O’Reilly, that he had used drugs. During part one of the interview, he had finally acknowledged she was telling the truth.
“Do you owe David Walsh an apology?” asked Winfrey, whose researchers had contacted the journalist as part of their research into which questions to ask ahead of the interview.
"That's a good question," said Armstrong, prompting Winfrey to expand it.
“Do you owe David Walsh an apology, who for 13 years has pursued this story, who wrote for the Times [sic], who has now written books about your story and about this entire process?”
"I'd apologise to David. I've had a couple of these conversations," he said, the non-committal response presumably owing much to that pending litigation.
Winfrey also put him on the spot regarding USADA CEO Travis Tygart’s claim last week that persons acting for Armstrong had offered USADA a six-figure donation, possibly in an attempt to influence the outcome of its investigation.
Despite repeated questioning from Winfrey, Armstrong insisted that Tygart’s assertion wasn’t true.
"In the 1,000-page reasoned decision that they had issued, there was a lot of stuff in there, everything was in there, why wasn't that in there,” asked Armstrong. “Pretty big story. Oprah, it's not true."
“No-one representing you…?”
"Nobody, I had no knowledge of that but I asked around. Nobody, not true."
Winfrey pressed on: “And you are Lance Armstrong and you run your own show so if somebody was going to offer $150,000, you would know about it?
"I think the claim was $250,000, it was broad number but they narrowed it down. That's a lot of money. I would know," he insisted.
And you're saying that's not true?
"That's not true."
When it comes to believing the word of a man who has now confessed to being a serial liar against that of the head of the agency who stood up to personal attacks from the Armstrong camp to ultimately bring him down, many observers have made their mind up as to which version of events they believe.
The rest of the interview was more in line with the broader expectations of an interview with Oprah Winfrey – the effect of the unravelling of the almost two decades of lies on Armstrong personally, and on his family, including leaving his mother “a wreck” – as he began to seek to repair his image if not with the cycling community, for many of whom he will have said far too little, far too late, but at least with the wider American public.
The expected tears came as he revealed how his children saw what was being written about their father as well as what was being set about him at school, and how his son Luke, aged 13, took his side.
“When this all really started, I saw my son defending me, and saying that's not true. What you're saying about my dad is not true.”
For the first time, tears welled in Armstrong’s eyes as he took a few seconds to compose himself.
"That's when I knew I had to tell him. And he'd never asked me. He'd never said 'dad, is this true?'. He trusted me.
“I heard he was defending me and it gets ugly and at that point I decided it was out of control and I had to have a talk with him here over the holidays.
"I said there have been a lot of questions about your dad any my career and whether I doped and I've always denied it and been ruthless and defiant which you have seen, which makes it even sicker but I want you to know that it is true. “
Armstrong said that the lowest point came when he was asked to leave Livestrong’s board. He had already stepped down as chairman of the charity he founded as the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which has also dropped his name from the title.
"The Foundation is like my sixth child and to make that decision and to step aside was big. It was the best thing for the organisation but it hurt like hell. That was the lowest," he explained.
More than once, Armstrong compared where he is right now, post USADA sanctions and in the wake of his confession, to his diagnosis with cancer.
“I've been to a dark place that was not my doing where I didn't know if I would live a month, six months, a year, five years, 10 years and it has helped me now,” he reflected.
“This is not a good time but it isn't the worst part of my life. You can't compare this to an advanced diagnosis. That sets the bar. It is close but I'm an optimist and I like to look forward. This has caused me to look back and I don't like that.”
“Are you a better human being today because this happened,” asked Winfrey. “Did it help you become a better human being?”
"Without a doubt and again this happened twice in my life,” Armstrong replied.
“When I was diagnosed I was better and smarter after that and then lost my way and this is the second time. It is easy to sit here and say I feel better and smarter but I can't lose my way again.
"Only I can control it and I'm in no position to make promises. I will slip up every now and then. The biggest challenge of the rest of my life is to not slip up again and not lose sight of what I have to do. I had it but things got too big and too crazy. Epic challenge."
“It's an epic story,” said Winfrey. “What's the moral to the story?”
"I don't have a great answer there. I can look at what I did, cheating to win bike races, lying about it, bullying people, of course you're not supposed to do those things - that's what we teach our children. That's the easy thing.
“There's another moral to this story. For me, I think it was about that ride and about losing myself and getting caught up in that and doing all those things along the way. And then the ultimate crime is the betrayal of these people who support me and believed in me and they got lied to."
Winfrey’s final observation was: “You know what I hope the moral to this story is? It's what Kristin [Armstrong’s first wife and mother of his three eldest children] told you: the truth will set you free.
"Yeah. She continues to tell me that," he concluded.
And so ended a two and a half hour long interview that even at the start of this month would have been unthinkable.
It began with a man who for nearly a decade and a half had resolutely defended himself against those who pointed the finger at him, turning the tables on them through lawsuits and attempted character assassination, finally admitting that the seven years when he dominated the Tour de France after overcoming cancer had all been built on a lie.
It’s far too late for Armstrong to properly make restitution to those whose lives he damaged through his single-minded determination to maintain the deception, and while his confession may mark the end of the story for the general deception, the near unanimous reaction of those who know even a little about road cycling is he’s still holding back.
Almost all of us believed – or wanted to believe – the fairytale, however briefly. There’s no doubt, for better or worse, that it raised the profile of road cycling as a sport.
The story, once the greatest tale in sport that put the cancer survivor who conquered the world’s toughest athletic challenge up alongside the likes of Muhammad Ali and a select band of others as someone who truly transcended his profession, turned out to be built on straw, and that’s now been confirmed by Armstrong himself.
It’s the end of a chapter rather than the end of the book though. Questions remain unanswered, and Armstrong’s next move – he has said he would be willing to testify to a truth and reconciliation commission – unclear.
His former manager Johan Bruyneel is said to be working on a book, as well as now co-operating with Belgian prosecutors – there is a feeling among some that it is the prospect of what a man who was once one of his closest allies might say that finally prompted Armstrong to go public now.
There will be lawsuits. There will be continued suspicions that the UCI’s role in all this has yet to be adequately explained despite Armstrong’s insistence that the governing body did not help him cover up suspect tests, and there's the small matter of the Independent Commission the governing body has itself ordered on the issue.
We certainly haven’t heard the last of Lance Armstrong.