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. AP Sports Columnist John Leicester is watching the broadcast and giving his impressions of the interview as it unfolds:
The whole Armstrong narrative we've been fed — and that reporters have been feeding — for over a decade is unraveling before our eyes in this interview, which makes it riveting to watch. Winfrey isn't soft-gloving Armstrong as she did Marion Jones in an interview in 2008. She's well prepared, with a good grasp of the details. The new narrative Armstrong is telling us is that he was a long-time doper who saw taking drugs as just part of the job of winning bike races. He bullied critics. "We sued so many people." Again, these facts are not news to people who have followed his story and been on the receiving end of his lawyers' writs. But to hear it all from the horse's mouth is very dramatic. "I will spend the rest of my life trying to earn back trust." Given the shocking scale of this fraud, one lifetime may not be enough.
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?
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester