In the first part of the interview Thursday night, Oprah was good, asking him clear, simple questions and refusing to lob him any soft balls. But I thought Armstrong was all too interested in saying he was sorry without really having to apologize. I do wish she had challenged him a bit more when he said things like, "The idea that anyone was forced or pressured or encouraged by me [to use PEDs], that is not true." It took a lot of gall for him to say that, knowing that half his teammates are making public statements to the contrary, and I wish Oprah had called him on it.
I also wish she hadn't allowed him to waffle on some of the issues. "I didn't invent the culture, but I didn't try to stop the culture, and that's my mistake and that's what I have to be sorry for." No, it isn't. That's just a few carefully chosen words away from "Hey, I did it, but everybody was doing it." What he should be sorry for is bullying his accusers.
In the Friday night interview, Oprah was a little tougher. "Do you have remorse?" she asked him point black. His immediate reaction was "Ummm..." It hemmed and hawed for a good 20 seconds before finally saying, "absolutely." No, too slow, I thought; if he was absolutely remorseful then he would have said so right away. It seems part of him still thinks that he's being singled out unfairly because he was the big winner in a sport where many think everyone is doping.
Oprah then led him into discussion of an issue that was perhaps more on the minds of his fans - that he had let down those who had put the most faith in him. He first teared up when Oprah asked what he told his children. He knew he would have to tell the truth, Armstrong said, when he overheard his 13-year old son defending him to friends. That's the time, he said, that he finally realized that he was going to have to come clean.
Oprah then hit him with another straight right: Did he feel he had let down those who most regarded him as a hero? "Your success transcended the sport," she said. The reason he was more popular in the U.S. than cycling itself, Oprah suggested, was that beating cancer had made him an icon for hundreds of thousands of cancer patients and survivors and their families. Did he feel, she wanted to know, that he had let them down?
Armstrong teared up again, choked and was silent for a few seconds. In that pause, I thought of a close friend who had beaten cancer and regarded Armstrong as her hero. I had callously teased her about Armstrong and PEDs because I didn't care about cycling as a sport and knew that she didn't either. It had never occurred to me that he might have been at least as much of an inspiration to her as, say, Muhammad Ali—another figure who transcended a marginal sport and inspired millions of fans who otherwise would never have seen a boxing match—had been to me.