Oprah Winfrey went directly to the heart of the matter right at the outset of her interview with Lance Armstrong Thursday night.
Rather than wait until later in the show — or even until Part Two of the interview on Friday night — Oprah got Armstrong to admit to his rampant doping in the first minutes of her sensational prime-time interview with the disgraced international cycling champion.
It was not what we expected from years of watching shows like this. Usually, interviewers and their producers strive to hold off on the most news-making aspects of their interview, in order to maintain viewership throughout the show — or, in the case of Oprah’s interview with Armstrong, drive viewership to Part Two the following evening.
But not Oprah. “Let’s start with the questions that people around the world have been waiting for you to answer,” she said to Armstrong, just minutes into the 90-minute Part One Thursday night on OWN. “And for now, I’d just like a yes or no.” The details would come later.
And so it began. “Yes or no,” Oprah asked, “did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?”
“Yes,” answered Armstrong.
“Yes or no,” Oprah probed, “was one of those banned substances EPO [a protein hormone known as erythropoietin]?” (“Yes,” he replied.) “Did you ever blood-dope or use blood transfusions to enhance your cycling performance?” (“Yes,” Armstrong said.) “Did you ever use any other banned substances like testosterone, cortisone or human-growth hormone?” (“Yes.”)
And most significantly (at least to us): “Yes or no — in all seven of your Tour de France victories, did you ever take banned substances or blood-dope?”
The next question was significant too. Oprah asked Armstrong if he thought it was possible to win the Tour de France seven times in a row without doping. “Not in my opinion,” Armstrong said.
With the yes-and-no questions at an end, journalists assigned to watch the show for thousands of news organizations around the world had their story: Armstrong had ‘fessed up to doping after years of lying about it.
And the scoop was all Oprah’s. In a way, that was the thing that impressed us most about this interview: That we don’t always think of Oprah Winfrey as a journalist. Instead, we think of her as a talk-show host and a TV mogul, but with this interview with Armstrong, she beat every news organization and every star interviewer in the entire world to this story.
And she also did something else successfully too: She put on a highly hyped prime-time special that stood a very good chance of not living up to the hype by the time we all got a chance to watch it Thursday night. But that didn’t happen either as Oprah kept us riveted to this story for 90 minutes.
After the yes-and-no questions, Oprah spent the rest of Part One of the interview going through various stages of Armstrong’s history — the races, the testimony of others who alleged that Armstrong had used performance-enhancing substances, the investigations and, always, his denials.
“For 13 years, you didn’t just deny it,” Oprah said, “you brazenly and defiantly denied everything you just admitted just now. So why now admit it?”
“That’s the most logical question,” he answered. “I don’t know that I have a great answer. I view this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times.”
Then, for nearly 90 minutes, Oprah confronted him with instance after instance in which he’d “bullied” those who said they knew he was doping. “I was a bully,” Armstrong admitted.
So what’s left for Part Two? The promo OWN aired at the conclusion of Part One indicates there’s still plenty to talk about, including Armstrong’s motivation for finally coming clean, and his plans for the future.
Part Two of Oprah’s interview with Lance Armstrong airs Friday night (Jan. 18) at 9/8c.