Lance Armstrong says 'sorry' on Oprah's sofa

Was it a PR stunt or a moment of redemption? Whatever the truth, his apology left his reputation more exposed than ever

Los Angeles

Lance Armstrong's emotional apology to the staff of his Livestrong cancer foundation – delivered in person shortly before he met Oprah Winfrey for their interview – is said to have brought several of the workers to tears.

But if viewers expected Winfrey's soft-sofa interview technique to push the disgraced cyclist into issuing a weepy onscreen apology, they will have been disappointed.

Armstrong appeared calm and collected throughout the encounter in a bland Austin hotel room, as he picked at the remaining threads of his own reputation. In the first part of the interview, screened on Thursday evening in the US, the Texan confessed that he had used performance enhancing substances for most of his sporting career, including in all seven of his Tour de France victories. Anyone who predicted that Winfrey would begin with a gentle question turned out to have been mistaken. "Yes or no," the veteran TV interviewer demanded: "Did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?"

Armstrong, sitting cross-legged in an open-necked blue shirt and blazer, shifted his eyes momentarily from hers, before he nodded once, almost smirking: "Yes."

His life as a champion who had overcome cancer to win clean was "a perfect, mythic story," he said. "And it wasn't true."

He said his feat of seven consecutive Tour wins from 1999 to 2005 would have been impossible without doping, and he revealed that his personal preferred "cocktail" was EPO, blood doping and testosterone. He described the US Postal Service team's doping programme as "professional", though he rejected the US Anti-Doping Agency's (USADA) claims that it was "the most sophisticated, professional and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen."

No team members were forced to dope, Armstrong said, though he admitted he was a "bully" whose battle against cancer gave him a "win-at-all-costs" mentality.

Armstrong's demeanour was not so much remorseful as relieved. At times, he even attempted levity. But if Winfrey found him amusing, it didn't show.

At the time of his Tour wins, Armstrong said he didn't consider his actions to be cheating because so many other cyclists were also using drugs. "I viewed it as a level playing field," he said. He did, however, deny having doped during his comeback Tours in 2009 and 2010, in which he placed third and 23rd respectively. He insisted the last time he used performance enhancing substances was in 2005: a claim many will find difficult to swallow. "I'm not the most believable guy in the world right now," Armstrong admitted.

Armstrong is convinced that his 2009 comeback led to his downfall. If he had decided to remain in retirement, "we wouldn't be sitting here", he told Winfrey. But his former teammate, Floyd Landis – who was stripped of his own Tour title for doping in 2006 – was unhappy about Armstrong's decision to return to competitive cycling. Landis accused Armstrong of doping in an interview with the US news programme Nightline in 2010, accusations which led finally to an investigation by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Though he failed to co-operate with that investigation, or with the USADA investigation that followed, Armstrong told Winfrey that he would now be keen to help "clean up" the sport and its image. "It's not my place to say, 'Hey guys, let's clean up cycling!' But if they had a truth and reconciliation commission… I'd be the first through the door."

Offering his apologies to anyone whom he had lied to or sued, Armstrong described himself as "deeply flawed". His victims may find other words to describe him. Whether they or the cycling community at large will ever forgive him for his misdeeds, is a question that only they can answer.

Drugs and Cancer: the connection

Lance Armstrong admitted to taking four drugs: human growth hormone (HGH), testosterone and cortisone – all of which help increase muscle strength – and EPO which boosts the body's oxygen-carrying capacity.

When he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996 the age of 25, it was rumoured it might have been caused by doping. Now, he has said he was taking drugs when he received the diagnosis. While HGH, testosterone and cortisone bulk up muscles, they can also fuel tumour growth and reduce the body's immunity. Doping may not have caused Armstrong's cancer, but it may have speeded its development.

EPO (erythropoietin), his chief drug of choice, is a hormone that stimulates the bone marrow to produce extra red blood cells, increasing the blood's capacity to carry oxygen – a big advantage in endurance sports. But EPO also thickens the blood increasing the risk of blood clots, heart disease and strokes. To avoid detection, Armstrong had blood transfusions, removing a half-litre of his blood, waiting a month while his body regenerated it, and then re-infusing it before a race. That too carries risks if it is not handled properly.

Jeremy Laurance

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