It’s hard to say who claimed the yellow jersey for Oprah’s feverishly promoted, drearily drawn out Tour de Lance. It wasn’t viewers. Armstrong’s admissions didn’t rank very highly on the celebrity mea culpa leader board except, perhaps, for the truly impressive ad-to-confession ratio. The spectacle began with a fairground huckster-ish voice-over – “Live around the world! After years of denial!” – that promised a cross between classical tragedy and Sale of the Century. Still, here was some insight into the gruelling nature of endurance sport. You needed a banned performance-enhancing substance to get through it.
The first few minutes were straightforward enough. Armstrong fielded Oprah’s yes/no questions about whether he was a brazen cheat who had doped his way to seven Tour de France wins, to which all the answers were a flinty-eyed, hardly less brazen “yes”.
He chewed his lips a lot. One body-language expert passed the time counting on how many occasions Armstrong touched his face – 62, apparently. But mostly the fallen hero’s affect was of a shark eyeing up his next meal. Oprah looked like … lunch. She wasn’t going to crack this one.
Though she pedalled quite hard for one whose interviews are usually like bathing in tepid jelly. She deployed words like “sociopath”, “narcissist” and “jerk”. But as Armstrong told us several times during the interview, he has always liked to control the outcome. He kept lobbing in little comments designed to claw back territory. The interview, Oprah insisted, was to be “an open field”.
No holds barred. “I think that’s best for both of us,” he approved blandly, establishing himself as if not commander at least co-host of this production. “Done with the yes/no questions?” he enquired coolly, after admitting to transgressions that would have humbled anyone short of a cyborg.
There was a stupefying lack of self-awareness. “I didn’t invent the culture, but I didn’t try to stop the culture. That’s my mistake,” he declared, of the endemic doping regimes. Stop it? He exploited it with breathtaking ruthlessness. He wouldn’t talk about anyone else, he said, though Oprah should have pushed harder on his assertion that he rode straight after his comeback in 2005. But this wasn’t about the bike.
There were moments of unintentional hilarity. The topic was Armstrong’s bullying behaviour towards, among others, Betsy Andreu, who along with her husband, Armstrong’s teammate Frankie Andreu, had testified against him.
Armstrong outlined his apology to her. “I said, ‘Listen, I called you crazy, I called you a bitch. I called you all these things, but I never called you fat.’” Righto. Perhaps he thought this would win points with his famously body-conscious interlocutor. Oprah seemed flabbergasted.
You can hardly blame her for finding it difficult to get any purchase. She asked him about suing masseuse Emma O’Reilly. “To be honest, Oprah, we sued so many people I don’t even … I’m sure we did.” These were people telling the truth whose lives he tried to destroy. What can you say? It was a little like watching a Tony Soprano appointment with Dr Melfi. Analyse that. Armstrong was in no position to feel hard done by.
Nevertheless, he did. Did he want to compete again? “It might not be the most popular answer, but I think I deserve it. Maybe not now.” Maybe not. Oprah perked up at signs of tears as Armstrong revealed how he told his son, “Don’t defend me any more.” But her eyes narrowed as he insisted his main reason for doing this was his kids.
At the end of the performance, the normally pathologically demonstrative Oprah sat, back ramrod straight against the chair, and extended a regal arm. Armstrong was forced to lean forward slightly to take her hand. If only in the language of the body, she had the last word and it was “meh”.
Even she could see there was nothing redemptive here. As the Seinfeld motto goes: no hugging, no learning.