January 17, 2013
Lance Armstrong doping Oprah interview
Lance Armstrong (Thao Nguyen / The Associated Press)

Oprah Winfrey put a nicely phrased question to Lance Armstrong one hour into an interview that aired on OWN Thursday night. The backdrop for the question was Armstrong’s confessed life as a bully toward the people who didn’t handle information the way he wanted.

Winfrey asked: “You were suing people and you knew they were telling the truth. What is that?”

Armstrong repeated a self-diagnosis from earlier in the interview: He was a control freak and needed to keep a lid on the truth about his extensive doping activities and his tainted cycling championships. He called his actions “Inexcusable.”

Confessions of that sort spilled out of the first part of the Winfrey-Armstrong conversation, which resumes tomorrow night on OWN. Newsworthy though Armstrong’s new-look persona may be, there’s a discernible lack of drama and pathos in this televised dance. And that’s because Armstrong needed this interview.

As Winfrey launched her very pointed “yes-or-no” questions that established his culpability, as she cycled through inquiries about his duplicity, as she pushed Armstrong on his barbaric treatment of friends and teammates, her interlocutor responded with what sounded like highly rehearsed, cathartic answers. As if he’d been preparing for this moment for a long, long time.

When asked how the doping scheme worked, Armstrong said, “We’d need a long time.”

When asked about how much sway he held over teammates, Armstrong said, “I was the top rider. I was the leader of the team.”

When asked whether he was a bully, Armstrong said, “Yeah, I was a bully.”

When asked how essential a doping program was to his team, Armstrong said, “That’s like saying we have to have air in our tires. That’s like saying we have to have water in our bottles.”

Which is to say that all the media speculation leading up to the interview was correct. Armstrong needed this session with Winfrey more than even her somewhat flailing cable network needed it. He needed it to pursue an adjustment of his lifetime ban from the sports that he loves. He needed it to rehabilitate his relationships. And he needed it to begin restoring his name, though that is something of a fool’s errand.

Yet what the session proved is just how much tension a report exceeding 1,000 pages, with testimony from 26 people, can drain from a high-profile interview. Armstrong could share little in the way of insight because that report, delivered by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in October, delivered it all, despite Armstrong’s most vicious and relentless attempts to prevent it.

And the poignant moments in the interview stemmed from that precise dynamic: Only an official report, and not Armstrong himself, can be trusted to extend the factual contours of l’affaire Armstrong. Throughout the first of his 90-minute encounters with Winfrey, Armstrong showed a high level of awareness of just how useless he is in a setting designed to tease out facts. “I’m not the most believable guy in the world right now,” he said at one point. At another point: “It’s impossible for me to answer this question and have anybody believe it.”

You better believe it.

With no particular relish or attitude, Armstrong made clear that the media folks who hounded him about doping weren’t going to slow him down. “I assumed the stories would continue for a long time,” he said. It was the official investigations — a federal criminal probe and, more importantly, the USADA thing — that really mattered.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.