Lance Armstrong finally confessed to using performance enhancing drugs during his cycling career today, admitting he cheated to win all seven of his Tour de France titles.
Describing himself as a "bully" and a "deeply flawed character", Armstrong ended years of denials by revealing his darkest secrets in an interview with talk show host Oprah Winfrey at his hometown of Austin, Texas.
In the opening question of the televised interview recorded three days earlier, one word was all it took to dismiss any remaining doubt his success on the bike was fueled by doping.
"Yes," he replied when asked directly whether he used performance enhancing drugs.
True to her word, Winfrey rapidly fired probing questions at Armstrong, offering him little respite and grilling him about every aspect of his tainted career.
Without any hesitation, and showing no signs of emotion, Armstrong replied "yes" to a series of questions about whether he used specific drugs, including erythropoietin, human growth hormone and blood doping.
Winfrey got right to the point, asking for yes-or-no answers to five questions.
Did Armstrong use banned substances? "Yes."
Did he use EPO? "Yes."
Did he do blood doping and transfusions? "Yes."
Did he use testosterone, cortisone and human growth hormone? "Yes."
Did he do it in all seven of his Tour wins? "Yes."
Right from the start and more than another two dozen times during the first of a two-part interview, 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 US Postal Service team that swept him to the top of the podium at the Tour de France time after time.
"At the time it did not feel wrong?" Winfrey asked.
"No," Armstrong replied. "Scary."
"Did you feel bad about it?" she 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."
Asked why he had repeatedly lied about using banned substances until Thursday's startling admission, he told Winfrey: "I don't know I have a great answer.
"This is too late, probably for most people, and that's my fault. I view this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times.
"It's not as if I said no and moved off it. While I've lived through this process, I know the truth. The truth isn't what I said and now its gone."
A cancer survivor who inspired millions with what had seemed like a fairytale career, Armstrong said he did not believe he could have achieved what he did without breaking the rules due to the culture of drugs in cycling.
"Not in that generation. I didn't invent the culture, but I didn't try to stop the culture," he said.
"It's hard to talk about the culture. I don't want to accuse anyone else. I'm here to acknowledge my mistakes."
He said he never considered himself to be a cheat and was sure he would get away with it, until out of competition tests were introduced and testing procedures dramatically improved.
Armstrong stopped short of saying he almost got away with it, but said his comeback in 2009 was the catalyst which started the wheels turning toward his downfall.
He said his comeback "didn't sit right", with former protege and fellow disgraced cyclist Floyd Landis, who eventually blew the whistle on Armstrong.
Whether his televised confession will help or hurt Armstrong's bruised reputation and his already-tenuous defence 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.
Armstrong said he went as far as stopping in at hotels during stages of the Tour to top up, but did not go into great details about his drug-taking.
He described his story was a "perfect myth" which wasn't true.
But in addressing the USADA report, he said the last time he "crossed that line" [doping], was in 2005.
Claims that he had drugs in his system after that, "were just not true", he said.
Armstrong accepted that he was leader of the team but denied giving direct orders to team mates to dope.
He conceeded pressure existed, and admitted he was a bully.
Famously attacking anyone who spoke against him, Armstrong said it was a trait he had possessed "my entire life".
He said it was his cancer diagnosis which brought out his competitive "win at all costs" mentality.
Armstrong was reluctant to name others in the ring, although conceded he didn't act alone.
When pressed on whether Italian sports doctor Michele Ferrari was the doping mastermind he denied it.
Ferrari was also handed a lifetime ban from participating in all sports last year.
"There are people in this story that are not monsters," Armstrong said.
Speaking to his 2005 Tour de France victory speech in which he famously said: "There are no secrets. This is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it." Armstrong said that was "lame".
"I've made some mistakes in my life and that was certainly one of them."
While he said he was embarrassed at the speech he gave, it wasn't because he was trying to rub it in the faces of his critics.
It took nearly 45 minutes into the interview however, to offer an apology of sorts.
"They have every right to feel betrayed. I will spend the rest of my life ... trying to earn back trust and apologise to people - for the rest of my life."
Despite his admission, Armstrong still said he did not fail a test.
"I didn't fail a test. Sure, retroactive tests did fail.
"But of the hundreds of tests I took, I passed, because there was nothing in my system."
Armstrong said he sued "so many people" he can barely remember who they all were.
He said of his former masseuse Emma O'Reilly, "she's one of the people I need to apologise to."
"Because you sued her didn't you," Winfrey replied.
"To be honest Oprah, we sued so many people... we probably did," said Armstrong.
O'Reilly was in the room on one occasion when the US Postal team hatched a plan to backdate a cortisone prescription, to be able to explain steroids in Armstrong's system.
She tried to expose the team's drug-use in 2003 but was sued for libel.
Armstrong said he had personally called former team-mate Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy, who spoke out against him, and apologised, but they were not "at peace".
"Because they've been hurt too badly. And it's going to take more than a 40 minute conversation to change that."
While he confessed to cheating and bullying, he denied several of the other accusations that have been made against him.
He rejected suggestions he failed a doping test at the 2001 Tour Of Switzerland then paid off the International Cycling Union (UCI) and doping officials to cover up the result.
"That story isn't true. There was no positive test. No paying off of the lab. The UCI did not make that go away. I'm no fan of the UCI," he said.
Armstrong said he thought he had got away with it when he retired for good in 2011 but his downfall was triggered by a two-year federal investigation that was dropped but led to the USADA probe.
He has already been banned for life, stripped of his all race wins and dumped by his sponsors but his problems are far from over.
Today, hours before the interview went to air, the International Olympic Committee stripped him of the bronze medal he won at the 2000 Games.
And as a result of his confession, the 41-year-old Texan now faces the prospect of various legal challenges and orders to repay some of the million of dollars he earned from his success.
"I thought I was out of the woods," he said.
"I just assumed the stories would continue for a long time. We're sitting here because there was a two-year federal criminal investigation."
When final allegations of his doping came out from USADA late last year, Armstrong said his reaction was "the same as it had always been".
"You're coming in on my territory, I'm gonna fight back."
He said he'd "give anything" to go back to that day and do things differently.
"I wouldn't fight, I wouldn't sue anybody, I'd listen..."
With his credibility gone, Armstrong said he had no moral standing to call for a clean-up within the sport.
"I love cycling, and I know that people who hear me say that will be thinking I disrespected the sport, the jersey... the colour yellow."
But he said if there was a commission to clean up cycling, and he was asked to help, he would help.
He lost nearly all his endorsements and was forced out of the Livestrong foundation, which he founded, after the US Anti-Doping Agency issued a damning, 1000-page report that accused him of being the mastermind behind an intricate doping network.
Although today's confession was a stunning reversal for Armstrong, it was widely expected.
He has spent the better part of a decade making public statements, giving interviews and fighting in court allegations of doping.
At times, he had gone so far as to verbally attack, and took to court, those who accused him of it.
The second, hour-long, part of the interview will air at 3pm NZ Time tomorrow.
- Reuters, Stuff, AP
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