It all might have worked if Lance Armstrong hadn’t had to talk about anyone but Lance Armstrong. It bespeaks his flaws and his corruption that he seems to have thought, as he sat down for his interview with Oprah Winfrey, that it might be possible. She began by walking him through a confession: “Yes or no? Did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?” Yes. EPO, blood doping, cortisone, testosterone, and human-growth hormone in “all seven of your Tour de France victories”? Yes.
After that, the forthrightness dissipated; so did the value of this ritual as anything but an illustration of transactional remorse, and confirmation of Michael Specter’s suspicion that Armstrong just wants to cut a deal with the anti-doping authorities so that he can compete again. (There may be more about that in the second part of the interview, which will air on Friday night.) The cheating is a big part of the problem with Armstrong, though not the only one. He told Oprah that he hadn’t felt any sense of wrongdoing when he doped; that he hadn’t felt bad; and hadn’t even thought he was cheating. (He acknowledged that that sounded “scary.”) He claimed that the doping had ended in 2005. And he described how, when he would hear “I’m a drug cheat. I’m a cheat. I’m a cheater” that he “just looked up the definition of cheat” and reassured himself—“the definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don’t have. I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.” That’s not a sympathetic answer: Why look up the definition, rather than looking inward?
More than that, Armstrong failed, despite Oprah’s best efforts, to convey any real understanding of the most troubling complaints against him—the ones involving other people: that he induced, bullied, and required other riders to dope along with him; and that he set out to destroy people who told the truth about him. His ethical hollowness, bad enough itself, was filled with cruelty: “I don’t want to accuse anybody else, I don’t want to necessarily talk about anybody else,” he said, and then proceeded to demonstrate that he doesn’t know how to do the latter without the former.
“The idea that anybody was forced or pressured or encouraged is not true,” Armstrong said. “I’m out of the business of calling somebody a liar. But if you ask me if it’s true or not I’m going to say if it’s true or not. That is not true.” Oprah pressed him, quoting a hundred-and-sixty-four page report that laid out, in detail and with the testimony of his teammates, how he made doping a virtual condition of employment on the Postal Service team. “Were you the one in charge?” she asked. “Could you get them fired?” He conceded that “the leader of any team leads by example,” but then resumed pushing back (“there’s a big difference…”). He seemed to recognize the humanity of nobody while clinging to the idea of the autonomy of all. Oprah, always a connoisseur of liars and masterly in this interview, broke in to say, “Are we talking semantics here?” We were.
“Were you a bully?” she asked next, provoking a telling exchange:
Armstrong: Uhh…[nervous chuckle]. Yeah, yeah, I was a bully.
Winfrey: Tell me how you were a bully.
Armstrong: Umm … I was a bully in the sense that you just—I tried to control the narrative, and if I didn’t like what somebody said, and for whatever reasons in my own head, whether I viewed that as somebody being disloyal or a friend turning on you or whatever, I tried to control that. Say that’s a lie, they’re liars….
Winfrey: So what made you a bully?
Armstrong: I think, I think just, again, just trying to perpetuate the story, and hide the truth.
The only kind of bullying he would own up to, in other words, was of what he presented as the defensive variety—“somebody being disloyal or a friend turning on you or whatever”—rather than that of a doping enforcer.
Nor did Armstrong seem to grasp the real harm he’d done in order to “control the narrative.” “This is what doesn’t make any sense,” Oprah said. “When people were saying things…you would then go on the attack for them. You’re suing people, and you know that they’re telling the truth.” He allowed that this was “a major flaw” and that he had “started that process” of saying sorry. But when Oprah brought up names, there was a strain of ugliness in his responses—particularly about women.
One was Betsy Andreu, the wife of Armstrong’s teammate Frankie Andreu, who had said that she heard him talking about doping. He worked to wreck her reputation and her husband’s career. Oprah asked him if she’d been telling the truth. “I’m not going to take that on,” he said. She rephrased, asking him to say whether he was still calling Andreu a liar. He still wouldn’t answer; it may be that doing so would get him in legal trouble, but that’s not an excuse. Instead, he shared what he seemed to think was an amusing moment from a phone conversation they had:
I said, “Listen, I called you crazy. I called you a bitch, I called you all these things, but I never called you fat.” Because she thought I said, You were a fat crazy bitch. And I said, “Betsy, I never said you were fat.”
Similarly, with Emma O’Reilly, the team’s former masseuse: “I watched the tape several times,” Oprah said. “Sort of under your breath, but you implied the whore word. You used the whore word. How do you feel about that today?” Not good, he replied, but it had been a matter of “territory being threatened, team being threatened, reputation being threatened.”
Winfrey: Isn’t she one of the… you sued her.
Armstrong: Uhhh…[shrugging] to be honest Oprah, we’ve sued so many people—I’m sure we did.
It would be helpful, in assessing Armstrong’s level of contrition, if he had a more distinct memory of suing the woman he had called a whore.
One reaction to Armstrong’s interview has been to remark on his lack of emotion, but that’s not really right. There was plenty of emotion there, just not what one might call the appropriate kind. He didn’t wallow in regret; instead there was an electric hostility toward remorse. There was also, as always with Lance, a passion for himself. Oprah played him a clip of his victory speech after the 2005 Tour de France, in which he said, “For the people that don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the skeptics, I’m sorry for you, I’m sorry you can’t dream big. And I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.” She asked Armstrong how that struck him now: “Do you feel embarrassed? Do you feel ashamed? Do you feel humbled? Do you feel—tell me what you feel.” He paused; he looked surprised to hear that those were the choices. And then:
I’m definitely embarrassed. Listen, that was the last time I won the Tour de France. That was the last—that was my last day. I retired immediately after that. That’s what you leave with? You can leave with better than that, Lance. That was lame.
So his performance was not up to par? In the midst of a confession, Armstrong’s focus was on how he might have better projected his greatness. That’s not what he’s left with anyway; now, he leaves as a disgrace.
Photograph by George Burns/Oprah Winfrey Network via Getty.
Source: The New Yorker