It's unlikely that there will be an interview anywhere near as big as Frost/Nixon for a long, long time. But if ever an interview came even remotely close to approaching that kind of scale, it was the interview Lance Armstrong gave to Oprah Winfrey tonight.
|Lance Armstrong is interviewed by Oprah Winfrey.|
The face of willpower, determination and survival against overwhelming odds, for over a decade Armstrong has been a hero to millions. He has raised almost half a billion dollars for cancer research and won the Tour de France a staggering seven consecutive times. At his best, no athlete in the world could even compare to Lance Armstrong.
Having faced allegations of doping for the whole of his professional career, in August 2012 he was stripped of his seven Tour victories and banned from cycling for life. Tonight, after years of adamant denial of those allegations, Armstrong finally admitted the truth: that he had taken performance-enhancing drugs whilst competing in all the Tours he went on to win.
|Disgraced: former professional cyclist Lance Armstrong.|
For me, undoubtedly the most difficult part of the interview to watch was the first minute. Oprah told Armstrong flat out that she wanted yes or no answers to her initial questions, and so the interview began:
OW: Yes or no, did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?
And from there, the yeses began to roll. Admissions to the use of EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone, cortisone and human growth hormone in all seven of his Tour victories.
The second he said yes, I put my head straight into my hands, and every subsequent yes was like a kick in the teeth. It was with those yeses that an important part of my childhood was reduced to nothing. Ever since I was a kid Lance Armstrong has (or should I say had?) been a hero to me. I looked up to him, I read and re-read his autobiographies many many times, I wore his Livestrong wristband everywhere I went, and in every single conversation I have ever had about him I have defended him. Of course I was aware of the widespread cynicism about his performances, but I never for one second doubted him. I just couldn't even begin to believe that a man who had overcome so much would throw it all away; I couldn't believe that the man who was a beacon of hope for millions of people affected by cancer could possibly have based his career on a mountain of lies; and I certainly couldn't believe that anyone could possibly be guilty of deceiving as many people as he did as effectively as he did for as long as he did. Perhaps I may have begun to have my doubts when he, the champion of fighting back, chose not to appeal the United States Anti-Doping Agency's (USADA) decision to strip him of his titles and ban him, but so strong was my belief in him that I still didn't believe he was guilty. But when he said yes, although it took me a moment to take in what had just happened, I did.
What really shows how incredibly effective his lies were, though, is the fact that when he told Oprah that he hadn't doped in his 2009 and 2010 Tours (in which he placed 3rd and 23rd respectively), a large part of me believed - and, to an extent, still does believe - him. I might be a fool to think that but I guess a part of me still buys into the Armstrong myth.
|Lance Armstrong: a liar, a cheater, a bully, and a fraud.|
But despite my willingness to believe what he said about his cleanness on his comeback tours, throughout the interview I was aware that it felt somewhat rehearsed. Obviously he would not have been able to anticipate every question Oprah threw at him, but it was more his demeanour that felt prepared. It felt rehearsed in the same way that Princess Diana's demeanour in her interview with Panorama all those years ago felt very rehearsed. Except in Armstrong's case rather than play the victim he played the role of the self-loather, and although his admissions of "I am a flawed character" and "It was all my fault" are true, they simply felt like an attempt to win sympathy from the once-adoring public in the hope of retaining what few fans he has left.
I couldn't possibly review this interview without paying tribute to Oprah Winfrey. All throughout you could see the disappointment in her eyes, and yet her questions were fair, balanced, and to the point. The establishment of the need for yes or no answers at the beginning was hugely important and set the tone for the rest of the interview. She was unafraid to press Armstrong for answers when they weren't given and to delve further into them when they were, and all whilst maintaining the calm, dignified manner of the interview. She was extremely well-informed about the subject, her questions were carefully considered and, most importantly, were the questions to which the public wanted to hear answers. She handled the interview incredibly well and was undoubtedly the right choice of interviewer.
|Oprah Winfrey: disappointed, but balanced and professional.|
Ultimately, what we wanted from this interview was the truth; some were worried we wouldn't get it but we did, and there's the guarantee that more of it will be revealed in the second part, due to go out tomorrow night. Unfortunately, though, the content of the truth leaves me feeling cold. The hour or so's worth of footage that aired tonight exposed Lance Armstrong for what he truly is: a liar, a cheater, a bully, and a fraud. He showed himself to be, underneath his iconic image, nothing but a flawed, dishonest man who ruined the careers of hundreds of honest athletes and betrayed millions of fans across the world. One can only hope that his foundation, which does an enormous amount of good, doesn't suffer as a result.
You know, it's quite ironic, actually. I said earlier that no athlete in the world could compare with him. In its indicting report, USADA concluded that Armstrong and his team had run "the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen." And so I guess, despite everything, what I said still turns out to be pretty true.