< One Big Lie


Friday, January 18, 2013

BOB GARFIELD:  We now know what almost everyone has suspected for some time. Lance Armstrong is a liar and a bully and a cheat. Despite a chorus of accusations and an exhaustive report by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, Armstrong long claimed he never took performance-enhancing drugs in winning his seven Tour de France titles. Along the way, Armstrong intimidated journalists, sued an English newspaper for libel and got a half-million-dollar settlement, and accused other riders of trying to destroy him.

We recorded this interview on Thursday night, after the first of two interviews on the Oprah Winfrey Network, in which Armstrong, at long last, confesses.


LANCE ARMSTRONG:  I view this situation as one big lie.


BOB GARFIELD:  My friend Mike Pesca covers sports for NPR. Hey Mike, welcome back to the show.

MIKE PESCA:  Thank you for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:  There’s a very prominent journalist named Buzz Bissinger who made a very high-profile fool of himself by supporting Lance Armstrong in print on more than one occasion. He calls Armstrong “an immoral manipulative liar who doesn't deserve a second more of anybody's time, so don't waste it by watching him on Thursday.”  You watched, Mike. Apart from the gripping experience of watching a sociopath confess, do you think you wasted your time?

MIKE PESCA:  No. We got the official confession. We haven't had that before, and so, maybe some of the people who are underlining how disappointing this was have forgotten the fact that it was just a useful exercise to get on the record Oprah’s stream of yes or no questions, where she established that he cheated for every one of those Tour de France titles.


OPRAH WINFREY:  Did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?


OPRAH WINFREY:  Was one of those banned substances EPO?


OPRAH WINFREY:  Did you ever blood dope or use blood transfusions to enhance your cycling performance?



BOB GARFIELD:  His confession was not one employing weasel words and legalisms. It was close to being unequivocal. Did that surprise you?

MIKE PESCA:  Well, I guess in the face of this overwhelming evidence, he couldn’t have employed a weasel word or said, “If I offended anybody…”

On the other hand, the psychology of it was constructed in a self-serving way. You know, he at one point early on in the interview talked about how I lost myself in this whole process. And that’s fairly typical of a serial cheat, that they’d kind of convinced themselves that this wasn't the real me doing it.

BOB GARFIELD:  The televised confession has become a genre unto itself, and one of the explanations for him finally coming clean, if he did that, was redemption. I’m going to play you a little montage:


PRESIDENT CLINTON:  Indeed, I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong.

MARK McGWIRE: I apologize to everybody in Major League Baseball, my family…Bud Selig. Today was the hardest day of my life.

JIMMY SWAGGART:  To my fellow television ministers and evangelists, please forgive me for sinning against Jesus.


BOB GARFIELD:  If the goal is not PR but actual redemption, halfway into this process what kind of progress do you think Armstrong has made?

MIKE PESCA:  I think, to some extent, what Armstrong was trying to do is a little different from the rest of the people that you heard from. Bill Clinton successfully tried to rescue his presidency and rehab his career, and so now he’s a respected player on the world stage. And Mark McGwire pretty much knew he was never gonna get into the Hall of Fame but essentially just wanted to do enough to get a job as a batting coach. And I think Swaggart, more than anything wanted to think of himself as a moral man.

I think what Armstrong wants to do is get his lifetime ban lifted, so that he could participate in triathlons. And so, I don't know if it’s absolution that Oprah could give but maybe he  internally views what he's doing as one of the stations of the cross, to get there, to reach his end goal.

BOB GARFIELD:  It will have been in the second half that Oprah confronts him with speculation such as you just offered, about trying to open up a window for some sort of future career in sports.


BOB GARFIELD:  What do you think about her performance as an interviewer? This was not particularly warm and fuzzy.

MIKE PESCA:  Right. I’ll read something that Jason Gay, a columnist with the Wall Street Journal wrote. He was saying that people who are following pro cycling reach their own conclusions. I don’t think you're expecting Oprah Winfrey to ask about hematocrit levels and the tour of Switzerland. Well, [LAUGHS] she did ask about the tour of Switzerland. At times, she got into a really nice level of detail.

What I would like, as a sports journalist, is different than what she's going to deliver, and she's probably right for her audience. This was an interview, from Lance's perspective, for rehabilitation, and for Oprah’s perspective, to get her audience to understand what happened in the arc of this human being. And I think she did that well.

BOB GARFIELD:  Can we trade highlights? Tell me what was your favorite moment? And then, and then I’ll tell you mine.

MIKE PESCA:  Well, I think it was when they brought up Emma O’Reilly, who was really just a masseuse and an assistant and a victim of Lance’s vitriol, when she chose to kind of go forward with the truth. He did imply that she a whore, basically. And he also implied that she was a drunken whore. And Oprah said, you know, not only did you say those things about her, you sued her. And he kind of had a blank look on his face, said, did I, you know, I, I kind of sued so many people. [LAUGHING] It’s really hard to keep them straight. I thought that was pretty good.

BOB GARFIELD:  Now, here’s mine:  It, it happened in the first maybe four minutes. Armstrong talked about the code name that he and his teammates had to describe the doping, and it was an anagram of EPO, the oxygen-boosting drug that they were using, and the codename was P O E. Sound familiar to you?


BOB GARFIELD:  Okay, listen: 


MANDRAKE:  P O E, purity of essence…. It's some sort of recurrent theme he kept repeating. It's a variation of peace on earth or purity of essence.


BOB GARFIELD:  [LAUGHS] Purity of essence. It was the callback code for the nuclear strike in “Dr. Strangelove.”


BOB GARFIELD:  It was the cause of nuclear conflagration.

MIKE PESCA:  [LAUGHS] And here I have this picture of Lance, like Slim Pickens, riding that bomb into the entire sport of cycling.

BOB GARFIELD:  Mike [LAUGHS], thanks very much.

MIKE PESCA:  You’re welcome, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD:  Mike Pesca covers sports for NPR.


Mike Pesca

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Bob Garfield