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Cycling: Armstrong takes too small a step

Lance Armstrong was spot on when he named his autobiography "It's Not About the Bike".

Oprah Winfrey's interview with Lance Armstrong raises more questions than answers   Photograph: Reuters
Oprah Winfrey's interview with Lance Armstrong raises more questions than answers Photograph: Reuters

As it turns out, it was about the drugs. The rumours about him taking performance-enhancing drugs have been circulating for well over a decade, and it had been all but confirmed that an admission of guilt would be forthcoming in his interview with Oprah Winfrey last week. Nevertheless, it was still fascinating to hear it directly from the horse's mouth.

In his first interview since being stripped of all seven of his Tour de France victories, which spanned from 1999 to 2005, Armstrong admitted to doping during every one of them. He admitted to taking EPO, testosterone, cortisone, human growth hormone and having blood transfusions. His confession is even more momentous when you consider that Armstrong was the ultimate enforcer of omerta, the unwritten rule that prohibits any member of the peloton speaking about drug-taking.

Love him or hate him, there is no denying that Armstrong's story is remarkable. From being brought up by a single mother and becoming a professional bike rider in a country which barely recognised cycling as a sport, to his recovery from cancer after being given less than a 50% chance of survival and then going on to win a record-breaking seven consecutive yellow jerseys in the Tour de France, it's Hollywoodesque.

But Armstrong's biggest problem in his quest for redemption is that he's just not very likeable. Throughout most of the interview with Winfrey, he appeared almost completely devoid of emotion and the tears, which had been widely anticipated, made only a fleeting appearance. Throughout the two-and-a-half hour interview, I could not shake the feeling that it was all an act.

He said the word "sorry" several times, but never was I convinced that he was sorry for taking performance-enhancing drugs. Sorry about being caught perhaps, sorry for the hurt he has caused his family and the damage to his cancer foundation, but not sorry for doping. He admitted that never, at any time during his career, was he scared of his doping being discovered. He, smugly, offered the suggestion that "we would not be sitting here if I hadn't come back" to cycling in 2009.

As expected, and as every other doping cheat has done before him, Armstrong cited the culture of doping within the sport as his justification for doing it. "I didn't invent the culture, but I didn't try to stop the culture," he said. He didn't feel like he was cheating. Instead, he just felt like he was levelling the playing field. In Armstrong's opinion, no-one could win the Tour de France seven times in a row without doping and, as one definition of a cheat is someone who engineers an unfair advantage over others, he did not view his doping as cheating because all the riders were doing it. It was, he said, as much a part of racing as "putting air in your tyres and water in your bottle".

The biggest flaw with the interview is that it has created many more questions than it has answered. While it was indisputably fascinating, Armstrong refused to discuss others who were implicated in his doping programme, and the culture of doping in cycling as a whole.

For progress to be made within the sport, Armstrong really needed to bring down the house with him. For any true value to come from his confession he needed to name names – those who knew about the drugs, supplied him and helped cover it up. There would certainly have been numerous people collaborating with Armstrong to enable him to dope to the extent he did: team managers, officials and doctors who must be identified if cycling is to move forward.

There have been innumerable accusations of bullying by Armstrong towards people who have, in one way or another, stood in his way. He admitted to this, but there was little to convince me that he wouldn't act like this again if he felt it necessary. He was the man in control over what happened during his career, and he is clearly uncomfortable with his inability to control the events now unfolding. When his back is against the wall, his instinct is to fight.

While Armstrong admitted to doping during the first part of his career, he denied he took performance-enhancing drugs when he made his comeback. This, to me, seems doubtful. USADA have stated that in analysing Armstrong's blood tests from 2009 through to 2011, there was less than a one in a million chance of their findings occurring naturally. There is the possibility that Armstrong is worried about being criminally prosecuted if he admits to doping as recently as 2009 to 2011. His earlier career, however, which ended in 2005, is outwith the statute of limitations, so he appears to be safe on that front.

Armstrong has attempted to appeal to the hearts and minds of the public by confessing to Winfrey, rather than the more constructive move, which would have been to give a detailed confession to an anti-doping authority. In my opinion, this is an abdication of responsibility on his part. It isn't clear yet what the fallout from his confession will be, but one thing's for sure, this isn't the last that we'll hear of Lance Armstrong.

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