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When Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

Jan 18, 2013  - Craig Lord

Lance Armstrong, the cyclist: “As long as I live, I will deny ever doping.” 

Lance Armstrong, the shamed cyclist: "This is probably too late for most people: I view this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times."

When he said he expected most people never to forgive, he was probably right - for if what we saw and heard in Oprah Winfrey's interview (part 1) is it, Armstrong deserves no amnesty, no forgiveness. He should remain banned for life. He can keep as fit as he likes - but he has lost his right to race against others who would find his presence unpalatable, to say the least. 

If he said sorry, he never once said it looking up, eyes on the host or the camera, his genes seemingly void of the thread that delivers the potential for a true act of contrition. If he is sorry, it appears that he is only sorry that he got caught.

He said he looked up cheating in the dictionary. He didn't look too deeply.

Definition of cheating: 

  • Armstrong: "to gain an advantage on a rival or foe"
  • Dictionary: "Cheating refers to an immoral way of achieving a goal. It is generally used for the breaking of rules to gain advantage in a competitive situation. Cheating is the getting of reward for ability by dishonest means. This broad definition will necessarily include acts of bribery, cronyism, sleaze, nepotism and any situation where individuals are given preference using inappropriate criteria. 

The rules infringed may be explicit, or they may be from an unwritten code of conduct based on morality, ethics or custom, making the identification of cheating a subjective process."

Sport has rules. They are very clear indeed. Armstrong's deception went much deeper. If he took a cocktail of banned substances, he lied and lied and lied and bullied and cajoled and controlled, breaking codes of ethics not only in sport (it is why sponsors and backers withdrew in droves and will now seek damages - public perception of brands linked to cheating potentially devastating) but in life. Ask any parent to list the basic rules of conduct that make us all fit for life and the societies we live in. Lying and cheating make it high on the list.

Oprah asked: "You are suing [people] but you know it is the truth [that you were cheating]. What is that?"

Armstrong: "It is a major flaw and a guy who expected to get what he wanted and control every outcomes. It is inexcusable. When I saw there are people who will hear this and never forgive me, I know that. This is the start of a process for me. I want to say to those people ‘I am sorry…I was wrong and you were right'."

The word control is critical to what happens next as authorities debate the issue of amnesty, truth and reconciliation. The Armstrong of old is still in the man: he has done what he has done because he has been forced to do so; he would probably do anything he could to retain a role in the world of sport. Should we buy into that? Caveat Emptor.

We have seen no genuine contrition. He admitted taking banned substances for a decade covering every single one of the seven occasions on which he was declared winner of the Tour de France. He won none of them: by his own admission, he cheated and bullied his way to the front of the peloton.

When asked about the people he had tried to crush to keep his dirty secret safe - the likes of former masseuse Emma O’Reilly or his former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife, Betsy - he could not bring himself to give an unconditional apology. He had called them liars. He had called O’Reilly a prostitute and an alcoholic. "She's one of these people I have to apologise to ... who got bullied, who got run over," said Armstrong. His lawyers may have already counted the potential cost of that in a nation where the pursuit of damages is a sport in itself.

Armstrong once called Betsy Andreu crazy. When Oprah, who has lived through times of struggling with weight issues and done so in the full glare of publicity, asked if he had called Andreu "fat", a smirk washed over his face as he denied ever having done so. It isn't funny, Mr Armstrong. None of this is funny.

Sitting next to the formidable presence and skill of Oprah (shame it could not be a courtroom but a fine job nonetheless), Armstrong came across as a pathetic loser, liar and cheat. 

The lie that doped sport can be thrilling was exposed by Armstrong when he pointed to the predictability of victory among those who cheat:  “The thing is, winning seven Tours - I knew I was going to win,” he said. “It was like saying we have to have air in our tyres, we have to have water in our bottles. In my view, it was part of the job.” Part of the pretence that such people are taking part in competition. There is no competition when people cheat. 

Asked if he experienced happiness in winning, he said that that emotion was felt more before those Tours. “There was more happiness in the process, the build, the preparation. The winning was almost phoned in.” Wow - world-class sport at its... worst.

When pressed on substances, his best shot was to say he took EPO "but not a lot". He sounded like the thief who takes a million but defends himself by saying "but I left 10 million behind".

Those kinds of figures may yet pale by comparison to the sums that Armstrong may now be pursued for: if there are those in the media, such as The Sunday Times in London, that intend to claim back damages won on false pretences, there are individuals and big organisations who want back what he robbed them of, be that reputation, rewards or money.

Armstrong described his comeback as a tactical mistake that galvanised investigations that led to his downfall. He believed he had no credit but should authorities settle on a truth and reconciliation process, Armstrong would be first in line, he told Oprah, as millions of folk rushed for the sick bag. 

"If they have I will be the first man through the door," he said on truth and reconciliation. Armstrong is at least a decade too late for that, say many, including journalists Paul Kimmage and David Walsh, among others, who would have much support were they to suggest Armstrong should be the last man through the door.

Full revelation would be required - on every aspect of a dark past. Armstrong would need to cite who, when, where, the names of suppliers, the names of those who were complicit, any officials who knew but turned a blind eye or even facilitated cheating. Much has come out, much has yet to come out. It did not come out on camera last night. It may come out in camera: Armstrong wants to compete in triathlons, he wants a place in a world he no longer deserves to be a part of. He may be granted that if he reveals the full extent of his duplicity and the role played by others. What amnesty ought to mean is that he escapes jail. That will now be for the US authorities to decide. After Oprah and in the wake of Marion Jones, it is hard to see how Armstrong could avoid serving time.

In the days of the GDR, many - the state included - lied to guard the secret of a medal-winning machine stoked on steroids and related substances that were tested on teenagers before lab rats. In the days of Armstrong, we came to learn that never had so few lied to so many with quite such determined defiance. It will be galling to watch Armstrong walk free at any level, given the length, depth, breadth and magnitude of his deception.

The UCI, having refused to allow its inquiry commission to hold a truth and reconciliation process, will change its position soon, we are told by the head of British cycling on BBC radio this morning. There is no need for truth and reconciliation when it comes to the surface. We saw that last night (the depths are a long way off yet).

Oprah opened the interview with a series of questions, to which she requested "yes or no" answers from Armstrong. Asked if he used drugs to win the Tour titles he replied: "Yes." Asked if they included steroids, EPO and PED, he said "yes". Asked if it was humanly possible to win the Tour seven consecutive times, as he did from 1999 - 2005, he said in his opinion it was not.

In the midst of the interview, the hardest look in the mirror early in the programme, Armstrong said: "Certainly I was a flawed character. I painted that picture, and a lot of people did. [But] all the fault and all the blame lands on me. Behind that, there was momentum, whether is the fans or the media…it just kept going. And I lost myself in that. I controlled every outcome in my life. Now the story is so bad and so toxic…a lot of it is true."

The soft soap act won't wash. Consequences must follow for Armstrong. A lot of people and their careers suffered as a consequence of Armstrong's actions. He has lied under oath, sued people left right and centre and looked the cancer community in the eye and asked then to hold him up as a champion for them, for clean sport, for truth and light. He was none of none of those things. At worst, he used the cancer community as cover for his cheating. In all of this, nothing could be more shameful.

Armstrong, 41, denied being a mastermind who threatened other team-mates to dope, and rejected allegations that he bribed the International Cycling Union and a Swiss laboratory to cover up his cheating. He painted himself as a victim. "I didn't invent the culture and I didn't try to stop the culture ... and the sport is now paying the price of that and I'm sorry for that. I didn't have access to anything else that nobody else did," said Armstrong. He had "lost himself" in the fairytale narrative of an athlete who battled back from testicular cancer to triumph in cycling's most gruelling race, raise a beautiful family and launch a cancer charity, Livestrong. "The truth isn't what I said. And now it's gone ... this story was so perfect for so long." 

Slipping into the second person, he added: "You won the disease ... it was this mythic perfect story. And it just wan't true." 

Armstrong never came across as a deluded figure during the many years of press conferences at which he lied and lied and lied again. 

He described his doping programme as "very conservative, and risk averse", adding "to say that programme was bigger than the East German doping programme of the mid 1980s ... not true". He is right there but the "risk averse" reference is one that could have fallen from the mouths of criminals such as Dr Lothar Kipke, who claimed in court in 1999 that the athletes doped in the GDR were well looked after, with great care taken to ensure the health of athletes. That was a lie too: many of those athletes have suffered health issues and have since been compensated (in law but with paltry sums) as a result, while many others, including swimmers who were never deemed to be destined for anything other than guinea-pig status, were subjected to substance trials for the good of world-class talent about to have their golden chances enhanced big time.

Armstrong asserted control too. Challenged by Winfrey on multiple accounts that he ordered teammates to dope, the former cyclist appeared to squirm. "I was the top rider ... the team leader but not the manager. There was never a direct order or directive that you have to do this. We were grown men, we all made our choices."

Asked was he a bully, he replied: "Yeah, yeah, I was a bully. In the sense I tried to control the narrative and if I didn't like what someone said ... I tried to control that. Said that's a lie, they're liars." He admitted cheating before he was diagnosed with cancer. 

He declined to confirm that his long-term doctor, Michele Ferrari, was complicit and said he was a good person. "There are people in this story that are not monsters, are not toxic." That will be for others to judge in law and according to the Hippocratic Oath.

Shown a clip of his 2005 Tour, when he assailed "cynics" who didn't believe in miracles, Armstrong told Oprah: "Looking at that now it looks ridiculous ... I'm definitely embarrassed." 

It seemed that way: for not once did he find the courage or moral fibre to look into the camera and say, without qualification, "I’m sorry".


(As you read this bear in mind that he passed hundreds of anti-doping tests without getting caught - so much for the constant cry, in any sport, of "but there is no positive test ... so shut up!")

Oprah: “Did you ever take banned substances?”

Armstrong: “Yes.” 

O: “EPO?” 

A: “Yes.” 

O: “Blood doping/transfusions?” 

A: “Yes”

O: “Other substances - testosterone, cortisone, HGH?” 

A: “Yes.”

O: “In all seven victories?” 

A: “Yes.”

O: “Was it possible to win your seven Tours de France without that?” 

A: “Not in my opinion.”

O: on timing

A: “Earlier in my career, cortisone, then the EPO generation began. For me, mid nineties"

O: on the culture in cycling

A: “I didn’t invent the culture, but I didn’t try to stop the culture. I am sorry for that,” he said. “I don’t think…I didn’t have access to anything else that nobody else did.”

O: “Was everyone doping during those years?”

A: “I can’t say [everybody was doing it]. There will be people who will say that. Others will say there were maybe five guys clean out of 200 and they were heroes…and they are right. But the idea that anybody was forced or pressured or encouraged [on his teams] is not true. I am out of the business of calling someone a liar or not, but that is not true.”

O: On process

A: “You had oxygen boosting drugs that were incredible beneficial for endurance sports. And that is all I needed. My cocktail was EPO, but not a lot, transfusions. And testosterone, which in a weird way I almost justified because of my history [suffering cancer and losing a testicle], running low." 

O: had he been afraid of getting caught

A: “Drug testing has changed, evolved. In the old days they tested at the races…they didn’t come to your house, your training camps. In 1999, there was no testing out of competition. Theoretically there may have been, but they never came. So you were not going to get caught, because you are clean at the races…clear. It is a question of scheduling.” [NB: he was still escaping the drop in 2005, when there was out-of-competition testing and the regime was not that different to the one that exists today in many sports]. “The biological passport worked. I am no fan of the UCI, but they implemented it.” 

O: On the perception that he is a bully

A: “Yeah, yeah. I was a bully. I was a bully in the sense that I tried to control the narrative. If I didn't like what somebody said, I tried to control that … I’d say that’s a lie, they are liars.”

O: “Would you give the same response today [in denying that Ferrari had doped him and the team]?”

A: “No … but my response is going to be different to most of these things today. Is he the mastermind? No. But I am not comfortable talking about other people. It is all out there." [We look forward to hearing Armstrong reveal the details, and as for feeling uncomfortable - did he feel uncomfortable as he lied his way through the past 15 years of interviews, press conferences, chat shows and on and on and on?]

O: “Were you reckless to engage with him [Ferrari]?”

A: “From a public perception standpoint, sure. But there were plenty of other reckless things. In fact, that would be a very good way to characterise that period of my life.”

O: on character (she uses the terms ‘jerk’ and ‘humanitarian’)

A: “I’d say I was both. Now we are seeing more of the jerk part than the humanitarian.. I am flawed, deeply flawed. I am paying the price for this, and that is okay. I deserve it. Were there days early on when I was saying I was getting screwed here? Yes, but those days are fewer and further between. I deserve it. This ruthless desire to win, this win at all costs … that served me well on the bike, it served me well in the disease, but the level it went to is a flaw. Then that defiance, that attitude, that arrogance. Looking at the tape [of his SCA deposition], you can’t deny it. ‘Look at this arrogant prick …".

O: “Did it [doping] feel wrong?”

A: “At the time, no. Scary.”

O: “Did you feel bad about it?”

A: “No. Even scarier.”

O: “Did you feel in any way that you were cheating? 

A: “No, scariest.”

O: on the extent of the faith and adulation of fans and cancer survivors

A: “I didn’t know what I had. I look at the fallout now. I didn’t understand the magnitude of that following … we see it now. The important thing is that I am beginning to understand that. It is not from seeing clips … I see the anger in people, the betrayal. These are people who supported me, believed me, believed in me. They have every right to feel betrayed. It is my fault. Some people are gone forever, but I will spend the rest of my life trying to apologise people and earn back their trust. At the time, it was easy, it just flowed. I was in the zone like athletes get. I wasn’t exactly a perfect world, that wasn’t the happiest time of my life. I can tell you today that I am happier today than all those times.”

O: on bribery claims [Armstrong’s teammates Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton have claimed that the rider had told them he was protected by UCI president Hein Verbruggen when he tested positive in the 2001 Tour de Suisse; Verbruggen had business dealings with the company of the US Postal Service team owner Thom Weisel at the time; despite admissions by the UCI and by the Lausanne lab director that Armstrong had met with the latter after he provided a urine sample during that Tour de Suisse which had suspicious levels of EPO in it, Armstrong maintained that the story was untrue].

A: “I didn’t fail a test [ever]. Okay, retroactively tested…technically, I failed those [the 1999 retests announced as positive in 2005]. But the hundreds and hundreds of tests I took, I passed those … because there was nothing in the system."

O: on claims that a ‚100,000 donation to the UCI was suspect.

A: “I am going to tell you what is true and not true. That story isn’t true. There was no positive test. There was no paying off the lab. There was no secret meeting with the lab director."

O: “Did the UCI make it go away?”

A: “No. I am no fan of the UCI, but that did not happen.”

O: “Why did you make that donation?”

A: “Because they asked me to. This is impossible for me to have anybody believe it, but it was not for me to have a cover up. They called and said they didn’t have a lot of money. I was retired and had a lot of money. They said ‘would you give a donation?’ and I said, ‘sure.’” [NB: Armstrong’s account differs from the UCI’s take: the federation says that Armstrong pledged the money in 2001 and paid in several years later]

O: “Where were you when you heard Floyd was going to talk?”

A: “I was in a hotel room at the [2010] Tour of California. Actually Floyd had been sending me these text messages, saying he had videoed everything and would put it on Youtube. I ended up saying ‘just do what you got to do, just leave me alone’. He didn’t go that route, he went to the Wall Street Journal.”

O: dod you regret coming back to pro cycling, four years after returning with official record intact?

A: “I do. We wouldn’t be sitting here if I hadn’t come back.”

O: “Would you have got away with it?”

A: “It is impossible to say. I’d have had much better chances [of that]….but I didn’t [get away with it].”

O: On investigations into Armstrong being dropped before USADA's decisive action, she asks: “When they drooped the case, did you think finally done, over, victory?”

A: “It is hard to define victory, but I thought I was out of the woods…”

O: “…The wolves had left the door…”

A: “Yes, and those are serious wolves.”

O: [George Hincapie testified against Armstrong, who then  realised that things would take a turn for the worse for him - so he tried to get USADA’s action blocked in a Federal court; the judge rejected his bid; Armstrong said he would not contest the charges again him and many of those who had supported him got the first warning sign through officials process that they had backed the wrong horse]. Had he made a mistake there?

A:  “My reaction then was the same that it always had been. Coming in on my territory, I will fight back,” he said. “But I would do anything to go back to that day.”

O: “Why?”

A: “Because I wouldn’t fight it, I wouldn't sue them. I would listen.”

O: will he cooperate with any truth and reconciliation process?

A: “Look, I love cycling. I really do. And I say that knowing that I sound like…people will see me as someone who has disrespected the sport, the yellow jersey. I disrespected the rules. Regardless about what anybody says about that generation, that was my decision. But if there was an truth and reconciliation commission…I can’t call for that, I have no cred [credibility] but if they have it and I am invited, I will be the first man in the door.”