After years of denials, insults and lawsuits both implying the contrary and flat-out admonishing those who argued otherwise, disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong has finally admitted what many in and around the sport assumed all along:
He used performance-enhancing drugs throughout his illustrious career, including during his unprecedented run of seven consecutive Tour de France championships from 1999 through 2005.
The 41-year-old testicular cancer survivor, who became one of the world’s most famous, inspirational and well-paid athletes as he grew to be the face of cycling and his Livestrong Foundation during the early 2000s, confessed to the decade-plus of widespread doping — the confession coming during the first part of a nationally televised interview with Oprah Winfrey that aired Thursday night. Part two of the special airs Friday night at 9 ET on OWN.
“This story was so perfect for so long,” Armstrong told Winfrey, looking back on his rise to success following his 1996 cancer diagnosis. “You overcome the disease, you win the Tour de France seven times, you have a happy marriage, you have children — it’s just a mythic, perfect story, and it wasn’t true.”
Winfrey began Thursday’s portion of the show with a series of no-nonsense, yes-or-no questions, during which Armstrong confirmed he illegally used a number of banned substances, including erythropoietin (EPO), testosterone, cortisone and human growth hormone, and he took part in blood doping and blood transfusions — doing so during each of his seven Tour wins.
When asked whether he could have won seven consecutive Tour de France titles without doping, Armstrong said, “Not in my view” — indicating it wasn’t possible because of the rampant use of PEDs during the era in which he won all his titles.
For most of the interview, Armstrong defended his actions with claims that doping was an epidemic among cyclists — though he declined multiple times to discuss specific details or any particular riders’ drug use.
“I don’t want to accuse anybody else. I don’t want to necessarily talk about anybody else,” Armstrong said. “I made the decisions, those are my mistakes, and I’m sitting here today to acknowledge that.”
At one point during the interview, Armstrong told Winfrey it was “scary” that he didn’t feel he was doing anything wrong by doping — which he admitted started in the 1990s, “before the EPO generation.”
He said it was “even scarier” that he didn’t feel bad about it, and that the “scariest” aspect of his PED use was that he didn’t feel in any way that he was cheating by using the banned substances.
But Armstrong, who wore a blazer, dress shirt and boots, was never particularly contrite, and his outward emotion never really changed throughout the 90-minute special.
“I’m not sure this is an acceptable answer, but that’s like saying we have to have air in our tires or we have to have water in our bottles,” Armstrong said. “In my view, (doping) was part of the job. ... I didn’t invent the culture, but I didn’t try to stop the culture, and that’s my mistake. That’s what I have to be sorry for.”
When pressed by Winfrey about whether he, as the leader of his US Postal Service-sponsored team, pressured other riders on his team to use PEDs — one of many accusations levied against him as the alleged ringleader of the team’s doping strategy — Armstrong repeatedly denied making any such threats, though he acknowledged to Winfrey on multiple occasions that he could understand how riders could have felt that a threat was implied.
“I guess I could have (forced teammates to use PEDs), but I never did,” Armstrong said. “There was a level of expectation. We expected guys to be fit, to be strong, to perform, but I certainly didn’t (make threats). ... Even if I don’t say it, but I do it, and I’m the leader of the team, you’re leading by example, and that’s a problem.”
In addition to saying, essentially, that he simply did what everyone else was doing, Armstrong pointed to a number of other motivations for his unabashed PED use. One, he said, was the fighting spirit that motivated him during his battle with cancer, which lasted from October 1996 to February 1997.
“That process turned me into a person — it was truly win at all costs,” Armstrong said. “When I was diagnosed, I said, ‘I will do anything I need to do to survive,’ and that’s good. And I took that attitude, that ruthless and relentless and win-at-all-costs attitude into cycling, and that’s bad.”
Armstrong, too, blamed the drug use on the pressure to live up to his larger-than-life story.
“Behind that story, behind that picture was momentum — whether it was fans or media, it just gets going,” Armstrong said. “And I lost myself in all that. I couldn’t handle it, and I was used to controlling everything in my life. I’ve controlled every outcome in my life.”
Armstrong also indicated to Winfrey that, during the height of his success, there was little motivation to stop doping because doping was so easy to get away with during that era — largely because PED testing wasn’t as developed as it is now, and it was only performed at actual races.
“Drug testing has changed, it’s evolved,” Armstrong said. “There wasn’t that much out-of-competition testing, so you’re not going to get caught, because you’re clean at the races. … (Then) two things changed … the shift to out-of-competition testing and the biological passport. It really worked.”
Armstrong denied ever doping during his return to cycling and the Tour de France —a third-place finish in 2009 and a 23rd-place finish in 2010, his final Tour race — but said that his comeback was what led to his story eventually unraveling. After Armstrong returned to the sport, he faced a federal investigation, which began in 2010. That investigation was dropped in early 2012, and at that point, Armstrong felt he had finally put his past in the past.
“It’s hard to define victory, but I thought I was out of the woods,” Armstrong said of the Department of Justice decision, which Winfrey likened to wolves leaving his door. “And those are some serious wolves.”
But Armstrong still had to combat incriminating statements —made both publicly and under oath and to the US Anti-Doping Agency — from former teammates and associates, including Tyler Hamilton, Frankie Andreu, George Hincapie and Floyd Landis, among others.
During the Winfrey interview, Armstrong referred to Hincapie’s statements regarding Armstrong’s drug use to be what sealed his fate. Hincapie was the only rider who raced on Armstrong’s team during each of his Tour de France wins.
“If George didn’t say it, they’d say, ‘Well George didn’t say it, so I’m sticking with Lance,’ ” Armstrong said. “I don’t fault George at all with that, but listen, George is the most credible voice in all of this. He did all seven Tours. … George knows this story better than anybody.”
In June 2012, before Hincapie’s statements came to light, the USADA officially charged Armstrong with doping throughout his career. On Aug. 20, 2012, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Armstrong against the USADA. Three days later, Armstrong dropped his fight against the USADA, and in October, the organization released the details of its investigation, which led to the International Cycling Union's stripping him of his Tour titles.
“It’s impossible to say, (but he would have had) much better chances,” Armstrong said when asked if he would have gotten away with it — or at least not been forced to publicly admit his guilt — had he not returned.
“But I didn’t. … I just assumed the stories would continue for a long time. This isn’t an issue of new stories or interviews. That’s not why we’re sitting here.”
While he made many admissions to Winfrey, Armstrong also denied conspiring with officials of the International Cycling Union to cover up a reported positive test at the 2001 Tour de Suisse with a donation to the Union, and also sidestepped questions about Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, who has been banned for life from cycling and reportedly was the person to educate Armstrong about doping from the beginning.
"There are people in this story that are good people," Armstrong said. "We’ve all made mistakes, and there are people in this story that are not monsters and they're not toxic and they're not evil. And I viewed Michele Ferrari as a good man and a smart man, and I still do."
Armstrong also said he played no role in the Justice Department's dropping the federal case — “That’s very difficult to influence,” he quipped.
He also said he’d begun to reach out to those he had wronged — including Frankie Andreu's wife, Betsy, who testified in 2006 that Armstrong used endurance boosting EPO while undergoing cancer treatment in 1996 — plus London Sunday Times reporter David Walsh and former masseuse Emma O'Reilly.
Armstrong had already apologized to members of his cancer-fighting Livestrong Foundation, from which he was forced to resign as his case unraveled. The foundation issued a statement late Thursday seemingly distancing itself from Armstrong, the cyclist, but praising his work as an advocate for cancer research.
"Even in the wake of our disappointment," it said, "we also express our gratitude to Lance as a survivor for the drive, devotion and spirit he brought to serving cancer patients and the entire cancer community."
It seems likely that the civil suits will begin to pile up now that Armstrong has admitted his guilt — he’s already facing at least two — and the veracity of Armstrong’s apology tour and his level of genuine concern is certainly up for debate and will be discussed at length in the days, months and years to come. But Armstrong said that now that he has come clean, he’s dedicated to restoring his shattered public image.
“These are people that supported me, believed in me, believed me — not just believed in me, but believed what I was saying — and they have every right to feel betrayed, and it’s my fault,” Armstrong said. “I will spend the rest of my life ... trying to earn back trust and apologize to people for the rest of my life.”
As part of his reintegration into the public eye, Armstrong said he’d be interested in pursuing efforts to help clean up the sport of cycling, which has been largely discredited due to the amount of PED use — and much of the credit for that uptick in cheating has been pinned on Armstrong, himself.
“I love cycling. I really do, and I say that knowing that I sound like people will see me as somebody that is disrespecting the event, the sport, the color yellow, the jersey, and I did,” Armstrong said. “I disrespected the rules, regardless of what anybody says of the generation. That was my choice.
“But if we can — and I stand on no moral platform here, it’s certainly not my place to say, ‘Hey guys, let’s clean up cycling’ — if there was an effort to (clean up cycling), if there was a truth and reconciliation commission — and I can’t call for that; I’ve got no cred — if they have it, and I’m invited, I’ll be the first man at the door.”
USADA chief Travis Tygart, who originally pursued the case that would eventually take down Armstrong, indicated that Armstrong's national TV confession was just the beginning of his road back.
"His admission that he doped throughout his career is a small step in the right direction," Tygart said in a statement. "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.”