"One big lie."
There. Lance Armstrong said it. No ifs, buts or maybes. No letting his fans — does he have any left? — down gently. Just wham! Take pretty much everything you know about me, that fairytale I sold you and got rich and famous on, and ditch it.
The reality of Armstrong is ugly, filled with syringes and bags of blood injected in hotel rooms in France to make him ride faster and longer. To his credit, Armstrong admitted that his behaviour as he perpetuated the lie that became his life was often ugly, too.
"This mythic, perfect story," Armstrong told Oprah Winfrey, "and it wasn't true."
The former friends and associates Armstrong hounded and humiliated over the years for daring to suggest that he was a fraud, reporters he sued and bullied, and pretty much anyone who didn't have their heads buried in a mound of Livestrong wristbands already knew Armstrong doped before the now fallen icon admitted it to America's high priestess of televised confessions.
But to actually hear Armstrong himself say it was riveting, because for so long it seemed to be a secret he would take to his grave or at least never admit to.
In completely reversing course to Winfrey, he offered up a whole new narrative to replace the one he suggested he got trapped and "lost myself in." This rebooted truth of Armstrong has him taking performance-enhancing drugs in all seven of the Tour de France victories that made him buddies with pop stars and presidents, and stomping on people to stop that truth coming out.
"We sued so many people," he said.
"The truth isn't what was out there. The truth isn't what I said," he said. "This story was so perfect for so long."
"Now the story is so bad and so toxic."
So what does he actually regret? Often, it was hard to tell. His delivery was often matter of fact and his steely blue eyes betrayed little emotion. Doping was just part of the job of winning bike races, at least to him. He started doping in the 1990s, before he was diagnosed at age 25 in 1996 with testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain. He had banned blood transfusions. He took the endurance booster EPO, human growth hormone, testosterone — the panoply of banned drugs and methods many riders used in the era when cycling was chemical warfare, an era Armstrong inherited but also perpetuated by becoming the dominant force in the sport's greatest race, the fabled Tour.
The sport's bosses at the International Cycling Union will surely have breathed sighs of relief that in this first part of the interview, with the second to be aired Friday, Armstrong did not dirty them. The big questions have been not only how did Armstrong get away with doping for so long but also whether he paid cycling's powerbrokers to cover up tests and to look the other way — which they insist he did not.
Armstrong said money he donated to the ICU to buy a machine used in drug testing was "not in exchange for any cover up." The ICU's bosses will also doubtless be pleased to hear Armstrong suggest that the testing program it uses now, based around a so-called "biological passport" that monitors riders' blood values, is a deterrent to doping. "It really worked," Armstrong said.
Believe him or not — "I'm not the most believable guy in the world right now, I understand," he acknowledged — but Armstrong said he "absolutely" did not dope when he came out of retirement and rode in the Tours of 2009 and 2010. That is academic now, because those race results and all of his others from Aug. 1, 1998, were stripped from him by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that exposed the extent of the cheating by him and his U.S. Postal Service team.
Armstrong's words to Winfrey confirmed the idea that dopers delude themselves and even believe their own lies. Armstrong said doping didn't feel wrong at the time, he didn't feel bad about it and didn't feel as if he was cheating. He even had to look up the dictionary definition of cheat. "I viewed it as a level playing field," he told Winfrey.
But it wasn't. For starters, not all riders doped like he did. And not all dopers take the same products or get the same performance-enhancing boost from them. Basically, Armstrong was saying that not only did he dope but he also didn't let it prick his conscience.
To see Armstrong humbled was stunning. Looking within himself was something he used to have no time for. "Introspection doesn't get you anywhere in a race," he said in his biography, "It's Not About the Bike." Yet to Winfrey he talked about how his childhood — born to a teenage mother and growing up without a father — and surviving cancer shaped him and how he developed a ruthless "win at all costs" mentality. He called that "a flaw."
With his stock at rock bottom, abandoned by his sponsors and forced to step back from Livestrong, the cancer-fighting charity he founded in 1997, Armstrong seemed to have understood in talking to Winfrey that ducking and diving her questions would only have made matters worse. She came well prepared, with a good grasp of the sordid details. The version of the truth Armstrong told was his version. Parts of it will be disputed, especially, perhaps, his insistence that he didn't order teammates to dope but rather only encouraged them to do so by setting an example as their leader.
"We were all grown men, we all made our choices," he said.
This interview alone will not be enough to earn Armstrong redemption, although his willingness at times to confront his own ugliness maybe will earn him some respect.
His choice of interviewer mainlined Armstrong into America's living rooms. That is where he must start to repair his tattered reputation to become marketable again. Speaking to Winfrey was a play for forgiveness — not from the cycling community but from a far broader audience, including viewers who don't care for cycling but are hungry consumers of celebrity and the modern pantomime of public disgrace and recovery.
If Armstrong's purpose was to help sport rather than himself, he would have come clean not to Winfrey but to anti-doping officials who wanted to learn firsthand how he and his team pulled off what USADA called "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen." To Winfrey, Armstrong disputed the biggest "ever" tag, saying the scale of their doping wasn't on a par with the dosing of athletes in the former East Germany.
Now Armstrong has started to tell an entirely different story, there will be pressure for more details.
"His admission that he doped throughout his career is a small step in the right direction. But if he is sincere in his desire to correct his past mistakes, he will testify under oath about the full extent of his doping activities," said USADA CEO Travis Tygart.
But in tearing down his myth based on lies, Armstrong started to clear away the ground upon which he can perhaps start to build a new story.
"I will spend the rest of my life trying to earn back trust," he said.
Given the shocking scale of this fraud, one lifetime may not be enough.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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