Frame Game

One Big Lie

Lance Armstrong wants you to forgive his doping—and forget his intimidation tactics.

Lance Armstrong telling his story to Oprah Winfrey.

Photo by George Burns/Oprah Winfrey Network via Getty Images

“I view this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times.”

That’s the key line in Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey. Unable to preserve his initial story—that he never doped—Armstrong is peddling a new story: He doped, he lied about not doping, and that’s all there is to it.

But that’s not all there is to it. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s report on Armstrong, issued three months ago, details numerous incidents in which Armstrong, according to sworn witnesses, pressured, threatened, or intimidated others. Among them:

1. In 2002, according to Armstrong’s ex-teammate, Christian Vande Velde,

Armstrong told Vande Velde that if he wanted to continue to ride for the Postal Service team he “would have to use what Dr. [Michele] Ferrari had been telling [Vande Velde] to use and would have to follow Dr. Ferrari’s program to the letter.” Vande Velde said, “[t]he conversation left me with no question that I was in the doghouse and that the only way forward with Armstrong’s team was to get fully on Dr. Ferrari’s doping program.”

2. At the 2004 Tour de France, after cyclist Filippo Simeoni testified against Dr. Ferrari,

Armstrong rode [Simeoni] down and threatened [that] if Simeoni did not return to the peloton Lance Armstrong would stay with the break and doom it to failure … As Simeoni and Armstrong fell back to the peloton, Armstrong verbally berated Simeoni for testifying in the Ferrari case, saying, “You made a mistake when you testified against Ferrari and you made a mistake when you sued me. I have a lot of time and money and I can destroy you.” Armstrong was captured on video making a “zip the lips” gesture which underscored what Armstrong had just said to Simeoni about how Simeoni should not have testified against Dr. Ferrari.

3. In 2005, after fellow riders Jonathan Vaughters and Frankie Andreu

exchanged text messages in which they discussed doping on the U.S. Postal Service team, Mr. Vaughters’ texts became an exhibit in [a court] proceeding. … Since that time, Mr. Vaughters’ employer, Slipstream Sports, has received several phone calls from Mr. Armstrong suggesting that Mr. Vaughters should be removed from the management of Slipstream Sports.

4. According to Armstrong’s former teammate, Tyler Hamilton,

after Mr. Hamilton had testified about Mr. Armstrong’s doping and after Mr. Hamilton’s cooperation with federal law enforcement officials had been publicly reported, on June 11, 2011, Mr. Hamilton was physically accosted by Mr. Armstrong in an Aspen, Colorado restaurant. … Mr. Armstrong said, “When you’re on the witness stand, we are going to fucking tear you apart. You are going to look like a fucking idiot.” … “I’m going to make your life a living … fucking … hell.”

In his interview with Winfrey, Armstrong categorically denied that any riders had been pressured to dope: “The idea that anybody was forced or pressured or encouraged is not true.” When Winfrey asked Armstrong whether he had been the real boss of his team, he replied evasively: “Well, I was the top rider. I was the leader of the team. I wasn’t the manager, the general manager, the director.” He went on: “There was never a direct order, or a directive to say, ‘You have to do this if you want to do the Tour, if you want to be on the team.’ That never happened. It was a competitive time. We were all grown men. We all made our choices.”

Winfrey asked Armstrong about Vande Velde’s claim “that you threatened to kick him off the team if he didn’t shape up and conform to the doping program.” Armstrong shot back, “That’s not true.” Instead, Armstrong softened the story into a matter of setting the wrong example: “But even if I don’t say it, if I do it, and I’m the leader of the team, you’re leading by example, so that’s a problem.” With this maneuver—deflection disguised as contrition—Armstrong reduced the charge of coercion to a plea of doping. He pointed out “the difference between that and saying, ‘You have to do this if you want to do the Tour or stay on this team.’ … I view one of them as a verbal pressure, as a directive. And that didn’t exist.”

Armstrong couldn’t deny all the lawsuits he had filed and all the times he’d accused people of lying. So he attributed these intimidation tactics to fear, a rough childhood, and his cancer. He had vilified witnesses who told the truth because he saw them “as a friend turning on you.” He had attacked any threat because when he was a kid, his family “felt like we had our backs against the wall.” And, tragically, “my diagnosis … turned me into a person” who was resolved to “win at all costs,” since cancer compels you to “do anything I have to do to survive. … And I took that attitude, that ruthless and relentless and win-at-all costs attitude, and I took it right into cycling.”

That seems to be the game plan Armstrong brought to this interview. Downplay your power over others. Deny issuing explicit orders to dope. Convert any such story into a matter of setting a poor example.  Take responsibility for yourself, but suggest that others—those who claim you pressured them—must do the same. Recast your threats, retributions, and demands for silence as products of a hard life. Reduce your sins of coercion to a sin of deceit. When Winfrey asked Armstrong “what made you a bully,” he answered: “Just trying to perpetuate the story and hide the truth.”

That’s Armstrong’s message: Everything he did, no matter how domineering, menacing, or manipulative, was a desperate effort to protect a single lie. “I tried to control the narrative,” he says. And he’s still trying to control the narrative. Which is a good reason not to believe it.

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: