Apologies begin for Lance during Oprah interview

For those who thought this would be one more act of Lance Armstrong defiance -- one overhyped, Oprah-enabled song and dance -- the 90-minute interview Thursday night had to be disarming.

From the opening questions, a preamble for which Oprah Winfrey said she only wanted yes or no answers, to Armstrong's final, uncomfortable words about the friends he betrayed, this was a confession, not a plea for mitigation.

Yes, said the seven-time Tour de France winner, he used banned substances to enhance his cycling performances.

Yes, Armstrong said, he used erythropoietin (EPO), blood doping, cortisone and human growth hormone, even though for most of the past 16 years he had denied it all.

"I know the truth," he said in the televised interview, "and the truth isn't what I said."

The second half of the 21/2-hour session, taped last week in an Austin hotel room, is scheduled to be telecast tonight on OWN, Oprah's network.

It would be difficult, though, to top the riveting 90 minutes that were shown Thursday.

This wasn't Winfrey doing her best heart-to-heart impression of her buddy Dr. Phil. Nor did it come across as Armstrong trying to do a verbal soft-shoe on someone who didn't know a bike chain from a strip of tree bark.

On the contrary, Oprah proved herself to be a quick study both of Armstrong's career and of the messy web in which he has tangled himself.

Why now, why publicly confess now, she asked him?

"That's the most logical question," Armstrong said. "I don't know that I have a great answer.

"This is too late, probably, for most people, and that's my fault.

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

He chose not to name names. The only fingers that Armstrong pointed seemed to be directed at himself.

Seeking to explain his motivations for using performance-enhancing substances, Armstrong said: "This story was so perfect for so long. I mean, you work on the disease, you win the Tour seven times, you have a happy marriage, you have children.

"It was this mythic, perfect story, and it wasn't true on a lot of levels."

The fairy tale, once told, simply got out of hand from there, Armstrong claimed.

"Beyond that picture, there is momentum," he said, "and I lost myself in all that.

"I couldn't handle it. It controlled every outcome in my life. And now the story is so bad, so toxic."

Armstrong said it was his early belief -- that performance-enhancing substances were rampant in cycling and that a rider couldn't win the Tour de France without them -- that led him to rationalize using the drugs.

"I didn't invent the culture," he said. "But I didn't try to stop the culture, either. And that's my mistake. I didn't have access to anything that nobody else did."

Behind the cheating was what Armstrong described as a "ruthless, relentless, win-at-all-costs attitude."

It made him a bully. It made him defiant in the face of even his strongest accusers. It also made him think that he was above the rules.

Armstrong painted a picture Thursday of a sport that was so corrupt, blood doping and EPO use was like "putting air in our tires or water in the bottles."

Did it feel wrong, Winfrey asked?

"No, and that's scary," Lance answered.

Did you feel bad for doing it?

"No," he said, "even scarier."

Did you consider it cheating, Oprah asked?

"No, and that's the scariest," Armstrong said. "I didn't view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field."

He saved his harshest words, however, for himself.

"I am flawed," Armstrong said. "Deeply flawed. And I'm paying the price for it. And that's OK. I deserve this.

"I see the anger in people, the betrayal. They have every right to feel betrayed.

"I will spend the rest of my life trying to earn back the trust and apologize to people."

His 90 minutes with Oprah on Thursday were a good start.

Lance Armstrong can be a compelling, disarming personality.

Which, I suppose, is how we got to Thursday night in the first place.

Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @gilebreton