Oprah Winfrey was criticised in a roundabout way throughout the week, as countless people declared Lance Armstrong wouldn’t face any hard questions talking to a mere ‘talk show host’.
And while I’ll admit I was struggling by the end of Winfrey’s webcast, as each honest answer was immediately followed up by two minutes of a screen encouraging me to Tweet my experiences, I suspect she was the perfect interviewer.
The interview opened with a series of direct questions, to which Lance was instructed, “answer yes or no”.
Oprah showed her intent from the outcome, with no possible wiggle room in the questions she asked – did Lance use EPO, steroids, cortisone and other banned substances in his seven Tour de France victories?
“Yes.” Lance didn’t pause once in his responses.
It was a clear declaration Lance was here to talk honestly and Oprah wasn’t afraid to cut to the chase on what people wanted to hear.
In the hour and a half that followed, some of the biggest issues of Lance’s career were discussed in frank detail.
Yes he had been doping before he was diagnosed with cancer. Yes he believed doping was so inherent in the sport it was needed to win. Yes he had been a bully. Yes he accepted some of the people he had wronged would never forgive him.
No, however, he never felt bad nor even that he was cheating when he doped in his Tour victories. No he never paid the UCI off. No he never failed a test (unless you count the retroactive ones, then yeah, he totally failed some tests).
Throughout it all, Oprah was able to press with some of the better follow-up questions because she brought a gravitas to the interviewer’s role perhaps no one else in the world could have.
Who else inspires and influences people enough to understand the level of scrutiny Lance Armstrong was under before he was caught out, much less the amount he is under now?
Oprah put it to Lance that fame magnifies everything, and whether you’re a jerk or a philanthropist, being famous makes it far bigger. Lance acknowledged he had been both in his career.
While he may have responded the same way to any other interviewer, how many other interviewers have been cast as both ‘jerk’ and ‘philanthropist’ before – as Winfrey has – to have that level of insight?
The other side was when Lance tried to say he never anticipated how much power and influence he had over other people’s lives.
“How could you not know?” asked the woman whose opinion sent a memoir to the top of the New York Time’s best seller list, only to find out portions of the ‘true story’ were fabricated.
Of course the end of that story is Oprah, having seen her opinion make a man’s book a best-seller, took that man and his publisher to task on her show for their lies.
Therein lies Oprah’s appeal. She isn’t a billionaire because she can relate to wealthy celebrities, she got there as the people’s champion.
And while she didn’t openly berate Armstrong – what would he possibly have admitted if she had? – she wasn’t afraid to not only ask the tough questions but follow up on Lance’s occasionally convenient responses.
Lance said he never told any of his teammates to dope but, as team leader, his doping was leading by example, and they should probably follow suit.
“Are we getting in to semantics?” Oprah asked.
Lance conceded verbal orders may not have been issued, but doping was probably expected of his domestiques if they wanted to be part of the Tour.
So yeah, it was pretty much on him that others doped, although he noted Christian Vande Velde continued doping after leaving Armstrong’s team.
When asked to comment on the way he treated his former soigneur Emma O’Reilly, one of the first to speak the truth of him, Lance said, “I have to apologise to her.”
“You sued her!” Oprah’s response was an outburst.
She never once let him off the hook on the way he treated those who had spoken the truth about him he had gone on to bully, intimidate and vilify in the media.
But then, Lance owned up to almost all of it.
And that’s what made the interview so engrossing. Oprah may have been the perfect blend of understanding and righteously indignant – “You’re Lance Armstrong!” she near-yelled at him on more than one occasion, calling him to the higher standard he falsely portrayed – but Lance was open and a human, albeit “a flawed human,” as he described himself.
He was scarily forthcoming at times, describing doping as integral and basic a part of his team’s victories as, “pump up our tyres, put water in our bottles and do that ‘other thing’.”
He had moments of humour. When shown a clip of himself on the dais in Paris after his seventh Tour victory in ’05, where he has a clear dig at anyone who ever called him a cheat, he said of the speech, “You can leave with better than that Lance, that was lame.”
He even had moments of genuine remorse. Having spent years defaming Betsy Andreu for speaking out against him as a cheat, Oprah asked if things between them were mended. “No,” Lance’s response was almost incredulous. How could he fix years of awful deeds against a person with a 40-minute phone call?
Perhaps most understandably, he seemed to pinpoint where and how he got caught, and analysed it as a time which, if managed better, could have been avoided.
He said of his comeback to the sport in 2009, “we wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t come back.”
The context being Floyd Landis had wanted to ride on Lance’s team for the 2009 Tour and when he wasn’t given a spot on the team, he decided to go public with his knowledge of Lance’s doping programme.
It was hard to hear Lance reminisce on that time as though if he’d handled it better he would have gotten away with it all, but who hasn’t looked back on their own ‘perfect crime’ and wondered if only they’d done one thing differently, they may have pulled it off?
There were plenty of other questions, answers, evasions and follow-ups and if you want to weigh in on Lance Armstrong in the future, you have to watch this interview to be informed.
Which is why I’ll be up at 2AM (GMT, it’s snowing here in England) tomorrow morning to watch part two.
Joe is the editor of Disaffected Middle Class