Lance Armstrong finally admitted it. He doped.
He was light on the details and didn't name names. He mused that he might not have been caught if not for his comeback in 2009. And he was certain his "fate was sealed'' when longtime friend, training partner and trusted lieutenant George Hincapie, who was along for the ride on all seven of Armstrong's Tour de France wins from 1999-2005, was forced to give him up to anti-doping authorities.
But right from the start and more than two dozen times during the first of a two-part interview Thursday night with Oprah Winfrey on her OWN network, the disgraced former cycling champion acknowledged what he had lied about repeatedly for years, and what had been one of the worst-kept secrets for the better part of a week: He was the ringleader of an elaborate doping scheme on a U.S. Postal Service team that swept him to the top of the podium at the Tour de France time after time.
"I'm a flawed character,'' he said.
Did it feel wrong?
"No,'' Armstrong replied. "Scary.''
"Did you feel bad about it?'' Winfrey pressed him.
"No,'' he said. "Even scarier.''
"Did you feel in any way that you were cheating?''
"No,'' Armstrong paused. "Scariest.''
"I went and looked up the definition of cheat,'' he added a moment later. "And the definition is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe. I didn't view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.''
Wearing a blue blazer and open-neck shirt, Armstrong was direct and matter-of-fact, neither pained nor defensive. He looked straight ahead. There were no tears and very few laughs.
He dodged few questions and refused to implicate anyone else, even as he said it was humanly impossible to win seven straight Tours without doping.
"I'm not comfortable talking about other people,'' Armstrong said. "I don't want to accuse anybody.''
Whether his televised confession will help or hurt Armstrong's bruised reputation and his already-tenuous defense in at least two pending lawsuits, and possibly a third, remains to be seen. Either way, a story that seemed too good to be true _ cancer survivor returns to win one of sport's most grueling events seven times in a row _ was revealed to be just that.
"This story was so perfect for so long. It's this myth, this perfect story, and it wasn't true,'' he said.
Winfrey got right to the point when the interview began, asking for yes-or-no answers to five questions.
Did Armstrong take banned substances? "Yes.''
Was one of those EPO? "Yes.''
Did he do blood doping and use transfusions? "Yes.''
Did he use testosterone, cortisone and human growth hormone? "Yes.''
Did he take banned substances or blood dope in all his Tour wins? "Yes.''
Along the way, Armstrong cast aside teammates who questioned his tactics, yet swore he raced clean and tried to silence anyone who said otherwise. Ruthless and rich enough to settle any score, no place seemed beyond his reach _ courtrooms, the court of public opinion, even along the roads of his sport's most prestigious race.
That relentless pursuit was one of the things that Armstrong said he regretted most.
"I deserve this,'' he said twice.
"It's a major flaw, and it's a guy who expected to get whatever he wanted and to control every outcome. And it's inexcusable. And when I say there are people who will hear this and never forgive me, I understand that. I do. ...
"That defiance, that attitude, that arrogance, you cannot deny it.''
Armstrong said he started doping in mid-1990s but didn't when he finished third in his comeback attempt.
Anti-doping officials have said nothing short of a confession under oath _ "not talking to a talk-show host,'' is how World Anti-Doping Agency director general David Howman put it _ could prompt a reconsideration of Armstrong's lifetime ban from sanctioned events.
He's also had discussions with officials at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, whose 1,000-page report in October included testimony from nearly a dozen former teammates and led to stripping Armstrong of his Tour titles. Shortly after, he lost nearly all his endorsements and was forced to walk away from the Livestrong cancer charity he founded in 1997.
Armstrong could provide information that might get his ban reduced to eight years. By then, he would be 49. He returned to triathlons, where he began his professional career as a teenager, after retiring from cycling in 2011, and has told people he's desperate to get back.
Initial reaction from anti-doping officials ranged from hostile to cool.
WADA president John Fahey derided Armstrong's defense that he doped to create "a level playing field'' as "a convenient way of justifying what he did _ a fraud.''
"He was wrong, he cheated and there was no excuse for what he did,'' Fahey said by telephone in Australia.
If Armstrong "was looking for redemption,'' Fahey added, "he didn't succeed in getting that.''
USADA chief Travis Tygart, who pursued the case against Armstrong when others had stopped, said the cyclist's confession was just a start.
"Tonight, Lance Armstrong finally acknowledged that his cycling career was built on a powerful combination of doping and deceit,'' Tygart said. "His admission that he doped throughout his career is a small step in the right direction. But if he is sincere in his desire to correct his past mistakes, he will testify under oath about the full extent of his doping activities.''
Livestrong issued a statement that said the charity was "disappointed by the news that Lance Armstrong misled people during and after his cycling career, including us.''
"Earlier this week, Lance apologized to our staff and we accepted his apology in order to move on and chart a strong, independent course,'' it said.
The interview revealed very few details about Armstrong's performance-enhancing regimen that would surprise anti-doping officials.
What he called "my cocktail'' contained the steroid testosterone and the blood-booster erythropoetein, or EPO, "but not a lot,'' Armstrong said. That was on top of blood-doping, which involved removing his own blood and weeks later re-injecting it into his system.
All of it was designed to build strength and endurance, but it became so routine that Armstrong described it as "like saying we have to have air in our tires or water in our bottles.''
"That was, in my view, part of the job,'' he said.
Armstrong was evasive, or begged off entirely, when Winfrey tried to connect his use to others who aided or abetted the performance-enhancing scheme on the USPS team
When she asked him about Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, who was implicated in doping-related scrapes and has also been banned from cycling for life, Armstrong relied, "It's hard to talk about some of these things and not mention names. There are people in this story, they're good people and we've all made mistakes ... they're not monsters, not toxic and not evil, and I viewed Michele Ferrari as a good man and smart man and still do.''
But that's nearly all Armstrong would say about the physician that some reports have suggested educated the cyclist about doping and looked after other aspects of his training program.
He was almost as reluctant to discuss claims by former teammates Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis that Armstrong told them, separately, that he tested positive during the 2001 Tour de Suisse and conspired with officials of the International Cycling Union officials to cover it up _ in exchange for a donation.
"That story wasn't true. There was no positive test, no paying off of the labs. There was no secret meeting with the lab director,'' he said.
Winfrey pressed him again, asking if the money he donated wasn't part of a tit-for-tat agreement, "Why make it?''
"Because they asked me to,'' Armstrong began.
"This is impossible for me to answer and have anybody believe it,'' he said. "It was not in exchange for any cover-up. ... I have every incentive here to tell you `yes.'''
Finally, he summed up the entire episode this way: "I was retired. ... They needed money.''
The closest Armstrong came to contrition was when Winfrey asked him about his apologies in recent days, notably to former teammate Frankie Andreu, who struggled to find work in cycling after Armstrong dropped him from the USPS team, as well as his wife, Betsy. Armstrong said she was jealous of his success, and invented stories about his doping as part of a long-running vendetta.
"Have you made peace?'' Winfrey asked.
"No,'' Armstrong replied, "because they've been hurt too badly, and a 40-minute (phone) conversation isn't enough.''
He also called London Sunday Times reporter David Walsh as well as Emma O'Reilly, who worked as a masseuse for the USPS team and later provided considerable material for a critical book Walsh wrote about Armstrong and his role in cycling's doping culture.
Armstrong subsequently sued for libel in Britain and won a $500,000 judgment against the newspaper, which is now suing to get the money back. Armstrong was, if anything, even more vicious in the way he went after O'Reilly. He intimated she was let go from the Postal team because she seemed more interested in personal relationships than professional ones.
"What do you want to say about Emma O'Reilly?'' Winfrey asked.
"She, she's one of these people that I have to apologize to. She's one of these people that got run over, got bullied.''
"You sued her?''
"To be honest, Oprah, we sued so many people I don't even,'' Armstrong said, then paused, "I'm sure we did.''
DIALOGUE: ARMSTRONG'S BIG TEST: Fallen sports icon Lance Armstrong's "no-holds-barred interview'' with Oprah Winfrey is airing Thursday night on her OWN network. Sports Columnist John Leicester is watching the broadcast and giving his impressions of the interview as it unfolds:
SIGHS OF RELIEF IN SWITZERLAND:
The sport's bosses at the International Cycling Union will be breathing a sigh of relief. The big questions have always been not only how did Armstrong get away with doping but also whether he paid cycling's powerbrokers to cover up tests, to look the other way - which they insist he did not. Armstrong says money he donated to the ICU to buy a drug testing machine was ``not in exchange for any cover up.'' The ICU's bosses will also doubtless be pleased to hear Armstrong suggest that the drug testing program it uses now, based around a so-called ``biological passport'' that monitors riders' blood values, is a deterrent to doping. Believe it or not, Armstrong says he did not dope when he came out of retirement and rode in the Tours of 2009 and 2010. ``Absolutely not.''
CHEATERS ARE DELUDED:
Armstrong's words confirm what some of us who cover sports have long suspected: to dope, cheaters have to delude themselves, believe their own lies. Armstrong says that doping didn't feel wrong at the time, that he didn't feel bad about it and that he didn't feel as if he was cheating. He even had to look up the dictionary definition of cheat, he says. ``I viewed it as a level playing field,'' he tells Winfrey. But it wasn't. For starters, not all riders doped like he did. And not all dopers take the same products or get the same performance enhancing boost from them. Basically, Armstrong seems to be telling us that not only did he dope but he also didn't let it prick his conscience.
ARMSTRONG THE HUMBLE:
Stunning to see Armstrong seemingly so humble and introspective. That was something he used to have no time for. "Introspection doesn't get you anywhere in a race,'' he had said in his biography, ``It's not about the bike.'' Cynics may think that he has simply been well coached for this interview with Winfrey. But he seems to realize that his stock is at rock bottom and that he can't afford to duck and dive Winfrey with his answers. ``I'm not the most believable guy in the world,'' he says. "I am deeply flawed.''
SO MUCH FOR ALL THOSE TESTS:
Remember all that hot air Armstrong used to spout about being the most tested athlete ever? Well, turns out he never worried that he would get caught.
"No,'' was his simple answer when Winfrey asked him about that. That will come as a shock to his supporters - are there many left? - who bought Armstrong's line that not testing positive actually proved something. The line from sports now is that drug tests are far more reliable than they used to be when Armstrong and his peers were injecting the kitchen sink and getting away with it. Still, it's downright discouraging to think that testing was so ineffective. So what about all the athletes in the all the others sports? This admission that cheating wasn't that difficult should be a wake-up call: testing must improve.
THE TRUTH IS OUT:
``One big lie,'' says Armstrong, putting the final nail into his myth. To their credit, Armstrong and Winfrey haven't beaten around the bush. From the get-go, we hear Armstrong say ``yes'' - he doped for all seven of his Tour de France victories. Blood doping, the blood booster EPO, human growth hormone, testosterone - the panoply of drugs and methods that many riders used when cycling became chemical warfare in the 1990s. Armstrong is being surprisingly candid. Few will dispute that doping was part of the culture in cycling. But his critics say Armstrong perpetuated it.
WHO'D HAVE THOUGHT IT:
In 2003, when The Associated Press first dispatched me to the Tour de France to cover a guy from Texas who was on his way to becoming the race's most successful champion, I never imagined for one moment that a decade later I'd be waiting to hear him say that we all should have stayed home.
Not that there weren't suspicions that Armstrong might be doping. They had been around at least since his first Tour de France victory in 1999, when dope tests found traces of a corticosteroid in his urine. Armstrong blamed a prescription skin cream used to treat saddle sores.
But Armstrong's doping appeared to be a such a well-kept secret that he would take it to his grave. To learn now that he was cheating like many other riders would not be stunning. Didn't we know that? But to hear him admit it would be. Do sports stories get any bigger than the rise and fall of Armstrong? One is tempted to say that you couldn't make this stuff up. But I guess that's why people around the world will be tuning in: because it seems that you can.
NOT A MOMENT TOO SOON:
Nearly 14 years after first winning the bike race that turned him into a global sports megastar, is Lance Armstrong finally going to tell the truth - or his latest version of it - about the role performance-enhancing drugs played in his career and seven Tour de France victories?
It's not as though he has much choice. The evidence gathered by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency of systematic drug use on his U.S. Postal Service cycling team was so overwhelming that Armstrong could look foolish and deluded if he insists to Oprah Winfrey that he rode clean, as he's always done until now. But, at this point, who still believes that?
Armstrong hasn't spoken at length and publicly about the thick dossier of evidence USADA published in October. To now admit to doping after years of denial will undoubtedly be painful and embarrassing for Armstrong, a proud and intensely competitive man. But this is also an opportunity for Armstrong to start the long trek back from disgrace and try to seek forgiveness.
Will he seize it or make matters worse by being insincere and sparing with the facts and apologies?
WHO IS USING WHOM:
For Armstrong to speak first to Winfrey and not to a roomful of sports journalists who have followed his rise and fall smacks of a public relations exercise. If Armstrong's purpose was to help his sport rather than himself, he would have come clean not to America's high priestess of televised confessions but to anti-doping officials who wanted to learn firsthand how he and his team pulled off what USADA called ``the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.''
His choice of interviewer will mainline Armstrong into America's living rooms. That's where he needs to start repairing his tattered reputation to become marketable again. Speaking to Winfrey is a play for forgiveness - not from the cycling community but from a far broader audience, including disappointed fans of the cancer fighter and viewers who don't care for cycling but are hungry consumers of celebrity and the modern pantomime of public disgrace and redemption.
Landing Armstrong and becoming confessor to the man who for so long looked the least likely candidate in sports to admit to doping is a massive coup for Winfrey. But she could take some heat if she didn't ask the tough questions and if the material proves unworthy of her network's decision to spread it out over two nights, not one as first announced.
Only when cornered is Armstrong making what is expected to be an ungainly U-turn after more than a decade of insisting that he competed clean and of hounding those who suggested otherwise.
Sponsors who stuck with Armstrong through the storms of suspicion that punctuated his cycling career have now abandoned him, costing him millions in future earnings.
To spare it more turmoil, Armstrong was forced to cut ties to Livestrong, the cancer-fighting charity he founded in 1997, the year after he was diagnosed at age 25 with testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain.
USADA has voided all of his competition results from Aug. 1, 1998, including the record string of seven Tour wins that made him rich, famous and buddies with pop stars and presidents.
The International Olympic Committee this week wrote to Armstrong asking that he return the bronze medal he won at the 2000 Olympics.
The sport's boss, Pat McQuaid, has said Armstrong ``deserves to be forgotten in cycling.''
In short, Armstrong's reputation couldn't sink any lower. To have any hope of surfacing again, he had to do something. He surely never anticipated that he would ever hit bottom like this - coming clean to Winfrey. Or will it just be clean-ish?
Armstrong must have decided that the alternative - do nothing - was worse.
There are so many questions that it's hard to whittle them down. If Armstrong confesses to doping, this would be my top five:
Why? Other riders - perhaps not many, but some - refused to take drugs to win, why didn't you?
Do you think doping contributed to your cancer? How after surviving cancer could you play Russian roulette with your body by doping?
Did bosses at the top of the sport, in the International Cycling Union, know about your doping, did they cover up positive tests, tip you off to tests, take money to look the other way and, if so, will you name and shame?
Outside your circle of family and friends, name three people who most deserve an apology from you and explain why.
In your second biography, ``Every Second Counts,'' in 2003, you wrote that it would ``just kill me'' if anyone said to your kids that ``your dad's the big fake, the doper.'' What lessons do you think they should draw from your rise and fall, your cheating and lies?
Do those exceedingly long straws in the glasses of water next to Armstrong and Winfrey during their interview remind anyone else of the rubber tubing that dopers use to give themselves illegal blood transfusions?
Some of Armstrong's teammates testified to USADA that they doped and injected in hotel rooms when they rode together on the Tour. Did they look anything like this hotel room in Austin, Texas, where Winfrey taped the interview on Monday?
FACTBOX - Cycling-Performance enhancing drugs used in sports
Lance Armstrong's confession that he cheated in international cycling races acknowledges that he used a cocktail of performance-enhancing drugs to try to boost red blood cells, improve strength and stamina, and mask his cheating from anti-doping authorities.
Here are details of some of the drugs commonly used in sports doping.
* EPO is a peptide hormone that is produced naturally by the human body. It is released from the kidneys and acts on the bone marrow to stimulate red blood cell production. By injecting EPO, athletes aim to increase the concentration of red blood cells to boost their aerobic capacity.
* EPO abuse has serious health risks. By thickening the blood, EPO abuse can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and cerebral or pulmonary embolism. The drug has been implicated in the deaths of several athletes.
* There are two forms of blood doping. Autologous blood doping is the transfusion of an athlete's own blood, which has been stored, refrigerated or frozen, until needed. Homologous blood doping is the transfusion of blood taken from another person with the same blood type.
* Although the use of transfusions for blood doping dates back several decades, experts say it has seen a recent resurgence, probably due to the introduction of more efficient EPO detection methods.
* Anabolic steroids are drugs that resemble testosterone, a hormone produced in men's testes. Because these drugs affect muscle growth, raising their levels in the blood can help athletes to increase muscle size and strength. Athletes who use anabolic steroids also claim they reduce body fat and recovery time after injury.
* Examples of anabolic steroids include testosterone, stanozolol, boldenone, nandrolone and clostebol. Abuse of these drugs can make people aggressive and cause high blood pressure, liver problems, impotence and declining sperm production in men, kidney failure and heart disease.
HUMAN GROWTH HORMONE
* Human growth hormone (hGH)- also called somatotrophin or somatotrophic hormone - is naturally produced by the body and synthesised and secreted by cells in a gland at the base of the brain.
* The major role of hGH is to stimulate the liver and other tissues to secrete insulin-like growth factor IGF-1. IGF-1 stimulates production of cartilage cells, resulting in bone growth and also plays a key role in muscle and organ growth. All of these can boost sporting performance.
* Commonly reported side effects for hGH abuse are diabetes, worsening of heart diseases, muscle, joint and bone pain, high blood pressure, abnormal growth of organs and osteoarthritis.
* Diuretics can be used in a sport as a masking agent to prevent the detection of another banned substance. Examples of commonly used diuretics include furosemide, bendroflumethiazide and metolazone.
* As well as masking other drugs, diuretics can also help athletes lose weight, which they could use to their advantage in sports where they need to qualify in a certain weight category.