Midway through the first installment of his televised confessional Thursday night, disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong told Oprah Winfrey: “One of the steps of this process is to say, ‘Sorry. I was wrong; you were right.’ ”
But as the 90-minute interview unspooled, it became increasingly unclear what exactly Armstrong regretted: the fact that he cheated his way to seven Tour de France titles, lied about and vilified his accusers or that he got caught.
It also was unclear whether Armstrong was uttering carefully scripted lines, speaking from the heart or a bit of both.
And it was unclear whether Armstrong realized that this first step must be followed by a far more substantive step — testifying under oath about how he perpetuated his decade-long doping fraud — if he wants any chance of rebuilding his shredded reputation and returning to a legitimate, competitive arena.
Almost from the moment the first installment ended, the global cycling community and rank-and-file sports fans started weighing in.
Was Armstrong’s highly publicized and long overdue confession an act of genuine contrition? Or was it performance art?
At one extreme was the visceral disgust of those who have heard and seen enough of the cancer survivor-turned sporting champion who mocked skeptics whom he said “can’t believe in miracles.”
“A sniveling, lying, cheating little wretch” is how CNN talk-show host Piers Morgan characterized Armstrong on Twitter, adding, “I hope he now just disappears.”
Others were supportive, including former teammate Tyler Hamilton, whom Armstrong vowed to ruin after he provided the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency with first-hand accounts of his doping activity.
Hamilton hailed the confession as “a huge, huge first step” on NBC’s “Today Show.”
The stark clarity provided by Armstrong’s itemized acknowledgment of the banned drugs and blood-doping practices he relied on was followed by more equivocal responses, as one admission after another was followed by a stated or implied “But . . .”
As in: “All the fault and all the blame here falls on me. But behind that picture and behind that story is momentum.” Armstrong’s point was that as a cancer survivor who went on to win cycling’s most grueling race, he found himself trapped in a narrative perpetuated by fans and the media.
At another point, he said: “They are my mistakes, and I’m sitting here today to acknowledge that and to say I’m sorry for that. The culture was what it was.” The point here was that doping was endemic during the era in which he competed; he only did what other top riders did.
And when confronted with video clips and accounts of his most unsavory behavior, Armstrong spoke about his victims in the passive voice, as if he hadn’t been present.
Reminded that he had not only sued team masseuse Emma O’Reilly but also called her a “whore” after she disclosed he had gotten a cortisone prescription backdated to explain away his improper use of the performance enhancer, Armstrong said, “She is one of the people that got run over and got bullied,” neglecting to point out that he was the one driving the steamroller.
Asked if he had made amends with Frankie Andreu and his wife, Betsy, whom he attacked and called “crazy” for disclosing that she’d heard Armstrong confess to using banned substances in a hospital room in 1996, Armstrong said: “No, because they’ve been hurt too badly.”
And so it went, with nearly every confession followed by a rationalization or arm’s-length, dis-embodied reflection.
“I am flawed. Deeply flawed,” Armstrong said. “We all have our flaws.”
To Armstrong biographer Daniel Coyle, the overall effect was regrettable.
“It felt like a painful and mostly unnecessary therapy session that took place on stage in front of tens of millions of people,” Coyle said.
“There were many moments, maybe 75 or 80 percent of it, when it was the old Lance: defiant, pushing back, not displaying any emotional connection. And there were flashes of insight. But by and large, this is a guy who doesn’t yet get the big picture.”
Richard Pound, former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said he sensed Armstrong was more chagrined by his fall from grace than contrite over the doping that led to it. That said, Pound likened his confession to the necessary first step of a recovering alcoholic.
“Unless you get them to acknowledge there is a problem, there’s no possibility of a cure,” Pound said. “He has now come forward and acknowledged what everybody knew.”
But that won’t be enough to persuade WADA to revisit its lifetime ban. If Armstrong wants to compete again, he’ll have to testify under oath — a point Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, made clear Thursday night.
“We want to know how you did it? Who was involved? How was it protected? How was it that you had so many drug tests — he says 600; it was half that, at most — throughout a period you were using, and none of the tests were positive? Who helped? Who was involved? How did the money flow?” Pound said.
“For him to say, ‘I’m taking personal responsibility,’ be our guest. But, by the way, don’t show up anywhere in the future.”