We’re all very used to seeing Lance Armstrong as the picture of confidence, someone firmly believing he was in control and would come out on top — whether he was on his bike or on a bully pulpit denying any wrongdoing throughout his historic career.
Yet Thursday night he proved no match for Oprah.
The Queen of All Media began her slow and public evisceration of the disgraced cyclist with a series of yes-or-no questions, and while Armstrong probably appreciated the ability to be brief when answering the big topics (Did you use performance-enhancing drugs?), he was visibly bracing for what was to come. He squirmed and scratched his head, hemmed and hawed, and offered several extended silences as Oprah pressed him for details on his years of cheating, denials, and bullying. Swiss bank accounts, private jets to blood transfusions, code words, these were all part of the system that Armstrong nevertheless called “conservative” and “risk-averse,” while scoffing at the idea that it approached the scale of the East German doping schemes of the ’70s and ’80s.
While he never officially said, “I’m sorry,” Armstrong was adamant about admitting he is deeply flawed, even characterizing himself as an “arrogant prick” when Oprah showed him videos of himself denying doping. A colleague of mine noted that in those old videos you can see Armstrong breaking eye contact during his answers, a tried-and-true indication of untruth. “I deserve this,” he said of the fall from grace that has defined his past year.
As much as Oprah got out of him, Armstrong was able to hold back on some answers, trotting out the old canard about not wanting to name other people and ruin their reputation. … Says the guy who can’t keep track of all the people he’s sued after they (correctly) accused him of cheating, and oh by the way, reportedly offered the U.S. government a $5 million payback and his testimony in order to nail other people involved in the scheme. He also said he didn’t feel like he was cheating because, you know, everyone was doing it.
The 90-minute interview was definitely front-loaded with the more interesting moments, with the majority of the running time seemingly rehashing certain details without much forward momentum. Although it was important to hear, I think, Armstrong owning his ugly treatment of women who were once close to him after they tried to call him on his cheating. If he wasn’t suing them, he was calling them crazy bitches or whores — but not “fat,” as he pointed out in undoubtedly his lamest moment of the night. He has apparently begun reaching out to some of the people he has wronged, trying to make amends, and to his credit didn’t pretend everything was all better now. He knows he has more work to do and that he’s far closer to the beginning of his turmoil than the end.
One portion that could give pause to those hoping for a full mea culpa from Armstrong is his expressed regret at coming out of retirement. Why regret? Because he believes he would never have been caught had he just stayed retired. The implication being he would have rather not ever gotten caught. Yeah, sounds obvious, but not really what you want to hear from someone who is truly remorseful.
While it was Armstrong sitting in that chair, it was also the reputation of the mass media that was in the crosshairs. Armstrong was only able to maintain his reputation for so long because so many reporters and news organizations were unwilling to let themselves believe the American hero had cheated. Yes, they had no hard evidence, but this past week has seen columnist after columnist come forward ticked off that Armstrong lied to them for so long, making them look like idiots for defending him. (I’d like to make a mini-apology of my own here for equating Buzz Bissinger with Rick Reilly in those last links, but in this case it’s valid.) Between Armstrong and the bizarre revelations about Manti Te’o and his nonexistent girlfriend, it’s not been a good week for journalists.
Part 2 airs tonight at 9 on OWN, where the interview will tackle the effect the scandal has had on Armstrong’s family, his sponsorship, and LIVESTRONG.
Photo: © Harpo, Inc. Credit: George Burns