Blazin' Saddles

Lance on Oprah Part I: “I never called that lady fat”

Blazin' Saddles

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Lance on Oprah - contrite or c...

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes! It started like that famous faked orgasm scene in the film 'When Harry Met Sally'. Although Meg Ryan certainly had more conviction while simulating the ecstasies of carnal pleasure than Lance Armstrong did when trying to perform a contrite confession for Oprah Winfrey.

These were the American cyclist's quickfire answers that opened the eagerly anticipated Oprah one-on-one: Had he ever taken performance enhancing banned substances? EPO? Blood doping and transfusions? Testosterone, cortisone and human growth hormone? In all seven Tour de France wins? "Yes" was the one-word answer for them all.

Armstrong only curtailed the string of yeses when the slightly plump lady in the pale blue dress asked whether it was possible to win seven Tours without doping. Pause. Mouth open for dramatic effect. "Not in my opinion," eventually said the man in dark jeans, blue shirt and a navy jacket, his wrist adorned with what is thought to be the last remaining yellow Livestrong bracelet on the planet.

Oprah herself had come to what was arguably her biggest ever interview prepared. She "went in with 112 questions" and had done her homework "like it was a college exam". Not only had she watched the '60 Minutes' episodes featuring USADA head Travis Tygart and Tyler Hamilton, she vouched to have read David Walsh's recent book 'Seven Deadly Sins' and the journalist's co-written doping tome 'LA Confidentiel' (presumably not in French – the language in which it was published).

But what was most astonishing of all was Oprah's own revelation to have ploughed through the 164-page USADA report in its entirety. How long before she confesses that this was all a lie; that back in the early 2010s there was a culture of skim-reading and no one had digested the report in full, they had merely injected snippets here and there provided by others.

All in all, the opening part of Armstrong's interview with Oprah was ground-breaking. Not because we exactly learned anything new – we didn't – but because for the first time in history, a man who has so steadfastly and brazenly lied his way through life, seemed to at least tell a few truths. Seven years ago, when Armstrong first retired, it was inconceivable that we would ever see the day when he threw at least not all, but some of his doping cards on the table. One year ago, even, the Texan was still putting food on his lawyers' tables with his bullish total rebuttal of the truth.

But here we at least had something that appeared to be a measured confession – although Oprah is surely guilty of hyperbolic tendencies in her claim to have been both "mesmerised and riveted by some of his answers". Come on, they weren't that explosive. We didn't even get any tears!

In fact, the clear failing of the whole show – which Saddles will come to later – was Oprah's failure to probe deeper and develop her questioning. All to often she has opened Armstrong up before failing to really put him in the corner. Make no mistake, it was Lance and not his interviewer who was in total control throughout.

But it would be wrong to criticise the talk show host too much. She clearly did do her homework – and we must remember she was catering for a peloton of viewers riding at different speeds. Armstrong's first public interview since his fall from grace was only ever going to play out thus – asking for a Jeremy Paxman-style grilling is both churlish and unrealistic.

If Lance stands to lose a lot of money over the next few years, then someone at least should make a tidy buck with a line of Oprah-inspired T-shirts emblazoned with some of the interviews stand-out catchphrases.

Here's a selection chosen to cover the main ground of the entire interview...

"It was very conservative, risk averse and aware." No, Armstrong was not talking about his bank or pension plan – these were his words in describing the systematic doping of his team (the sponsors US Postal and Discovery were, understandably, not mentioned). "To say that the programme was bigger than the East German doping programme of the 70s and 80s is not true," he stressed, perhaps with a nod to his old foe Jan Ullrich.

"My cocktail, so to speak, was only EPO, not a lot, transfusions and testosterone." This gem was further qualified by Armstrong's reminder that, "with my history of testicular cancer, I was running low on testosterone".

"The last time I crossed the line was 2005." The first major bombshell of the interview. Armstrong actually appeared offended to be accused of doping after his comeback. "Absolutely not," he answered when asked if he has blood doped in 2009/10, clearly very keen to keep hold of that third place in 2009 – after all, that could prove to be the only time the record books have him down as reaching the podium in Paris.

"I'm not the most believable guy in the world right now," he said before stressing how he did not force the likes of team-mates Christian Vande Velde to shape up and join the programme. Unfortunately, the producers later showed a snippet from Armstrong's filmed testimony in the 2005 SCA Promotions case in which an enraged Armstrong stands up for a "totally ethical" Michele Ferrari with the line, "you're going to find this hard to believe". Total belief, it seems, is something that cannot be granted to Armstrong – not then, not now, not ever.

"I was a bully in that I tried to control the narrative." This is the part where Armstrong says his upbringing and cancer scare made him into a bully that would "do anything to survive [and] win at all costs". (Note, it's around here – at 28 minutes – where Armstrong's eyes look to be glistening over a bit. Although it may have been the fierce lighting in the makeshift TV studio in an Austin hotel room.)

"My response on most of these things is going to be different today." This is a stand-alone classic. Could well be developed with the suffix: "And could well change again tomorrow."

"I'm not comfortable talking about other people." A big a volte-face if ever there was one.

"I would say I was both a jerk and a humanitarian." T-shirts with this quote would sell out quicker than a Rolling Stones reunion gig.

"I am deeply flawed. More of a jerk than an activist." Print those T-shirts!

"I deserve this. I'm not complaining that I'm getting screwed here."Admittedly, the screwing would be far more severe had someone like Paul Kimmage been on the other side of the room asking the questions, but everyone's entitled to a fair trial – even Lance.

"You cannot deny my arrogance." Or perhaps: "I was arrogant. It's not nice. I was a prick." We're going to definitely need to order some more plain Ts.

"Pump up the tyres, full up the water bottles. And that, too." Armstrong on how simple and accepted doping became on the team. This led to perhaps the best quote of the entire show: "It didn't feel wrong. Not at the time, no. Scary. I didn't feel bad. Even scarier. I didn't feel that I was cheating. The scariest."

"I am no fan of the UCI, but it did not happen." At this point, Pat McQuaid could put head to pillow as Armstrong stressed there was never any cover up in place with the UCI involving his Tour de Suisse positive in 2001 and his hefty donation to the sport's governing body. This, it has to be said, was one of the biggest anti-climaxes of the evening.

"To be honest, Oprah, we sued so many people, I cannot remember who." Another classic – and Armstrong's way of apologising to masseuse Emma O'Reilly. "She got run over. I bullied her. I have reached out, tried to make amends." Quizzed about calling O'Reilly a "whore", Armstrong admitted what he said was "not good", blaming it on his "team and territory being threatened".

"I never called her fat." This T-shirt has the potential to be one of the best-sellers. Despite all the damage done to Betsy Andreu, Armstrong seems most concerned with accusations that he had a pop at her weight. "I called you crazy. I called you a bitch. I called you a liar. But I never called you fat."

"He didn't go down the YouTube route." Armstrong on Floyd Landis's whistle-blowing antics which, along with Armstrong's own come back in 2009, were portrayed as the "tipping point" in the whole story.

"That's very difficult to influence." Followed with a wry smile that indicated that he indeed did try to exert influence, this was Armstrong's comment on the two-year federal investigation that eventually crumbled before USADA took up the baton.

"Those are some serious wolves." Wonderful reply to Oprah's comment that with USADA taking up the case, "the wolves were outside your door". Towards the end of the interview, Armstrong tries to pave a way back into cycling by claiming that "if there was a truth and reconciliation committee, and I'm invited, I'll be the first man on the door." Alongside those wolves, eh, Lance?

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The clear problem about the interview was the tone. This was perhaps the most important sports-related interview of the century; it deserved more than to be presided over by a lady whose claim to fame is eliciting a series of statements of debatable truth from an OCD'ed Tom Cruise as he jumped up and down on a sofa.

It was a more than a mere sports story. This was news but dressed up as entertainment and presented – to borrow a phrase from Armstrong himself – in a "deeply flawed" manner.

As with all American entertainment shows, it was brimming with flash-forwards and flash-backs; advertisement breaks came every 15 minutes or less, and each time we were told what to expect after the break, before being reminded that this was merely the first part of a double episode bonanza. (One of the breaks on Discovery UK even included a plug for the third series of an entirely unrelated programme called 'American Chopper', funnily enough).

My, oh my. Had the producers simply decided to show the interview in its entirety, without all the fluff, we could have got the whole charade over and done with in one sitting. As it is, the British audience have to stay up once again until 2am on Saturday to watch a second part which promises to delve into the world of Armstrong's sponsors, children, mother and foundation – before asking the question, 'what's next for Lance Armstrong'. (Hopefully no more staged and scripted TV interviews.)

Given Oprah's previous comment that Armstrong "did not come clean in the manner I had expected", then we can at least hope that something extraordinary will come out of part two at 2am GMT on Saturday morning. For something that seems to have been made primarily with entertainment in mind, there was surprisingly no explosive cliffhanger at the end of part one – meaning the worldwide TV audience will no doubt be considerably smaller for the sequel.

Although Saddles will still stay up. It's not over till the fat lady sings – and surely Betsy Andreu will have her say soon.

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