CHICAGO He did it. He finally admitted it. Lance Armstrong doped.
He was light on the details and didn't name names. He mused that he might not have been caught if not for his comeback in 2009. And he was certain his "fate was sealed" when longtime friend, training partner and trusted lieutenant George Hincapie, who was along for the ride on all seven of Armstrong's Tour de France wins from 1999-2005, was forced to give him up to anti-doping authorities.
But right from the start and more than two dozen times during the first of a two-part interview Thursday night with Oprah Winfrey on her OWN network, the disgraced former cycling champion acknowledged what he had lied about repeatedly for years, and what had been one of the worst-kept secrets for the better part of a week: He was the ringleader of an elaborate doping scheme on a U.S. Postal Service team that swept him to the top of the podium at the Tour de France time after time.
"I'm a flawed character," he said.
Did it feel wrong?
"No," Armstrong replied. "Scary."
"Did you feel bad about it?" Winfrey pressed him.
"No," he said. "Even scarier."
"Did you feel in any way that you were cheating?"
"No," Armstrong paused. "Scariest."
"I went and looked up the definition of cheat," he added a moment later. "And the definition is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe. I didn't view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field."
Wearing a blue blazer and open-neck shirt, Armstrong was direct and matter-of-fact, neither pained nor defensive. He looked straight ahead. There were no tears and very few laughs.
He dodged few questions and refused to implicate anyone else, even as he said it was humanly impossible to win seven straight Tours without doping.
"I'm not comfortable talking about other people," Armstrong said. "I don't want to accuse anybody."
Whether his televised confession will help or hurt Armstrong's bruised reputation and his already-tenuous defense in at least two pending lawsuits, and possibly a third, remains to be seen.
"CBS Evening News" anchor Scott Pelley reported Tuesday that the Justice Department rejected two offers from Armstrong as inadequate. Those offers included paying more than $5 million to the government to compensate for the fraud he allegedly committed against the Postal Service, and cooperating as a witness in a federal investigation.
On Thursday night, a story that seemed too good to be true cancer survivor returns to win one of sport's most grueling events seven times in a row was revealed to be just that.
"This story was so perfect for so long. It's this myth, this perfect story, and it wasn't true," he said.
Winfrey got right to the point when the interview began, asking for yes-or-no answers to five questions.
Did Armstrong take banned substances? "Yes."
Did that include the blood-booster EPO? "Yes."
Did he do blood doping and use transfusions? "Yes."
Did he use testosterone, cortisone and human growth hormone? "Yes."
Did he take banned substances or blood dope in all his Tour wins? "Yes."
In his climb to the top, Armstrong cast aside teammates who questioned his tactics, yet swore he raced clean and tried to silence anyone who said otherwise. Ruthless and rich enough to settle any score, no place seemed beyond his reach courtrooms, the court of public opinion, even along the roads of his sport's most prestigious race.
That relentless pursuit was one of the things that Armstrong said he regretted most.
"I deserve this," he said twice.
"It's a major flaw, and it's a guy who expected to get whatever he wanted and to control every outcome. And it's inexcusable. And when I say there are people who will hear this and never forgive me, I understand that. I do. ...
"That defiance, that attitude, that arrogance, you cannot deny it."
Armstrong said he started doping in mid-1990s but didn't when he finished third in his comeback attempt.
Anti-doping officials have said nothing short of a confession under oath "not talking to a talk-show host," is how World Anti-Doping Agency director general David Howman put it could prompt a reconsideration of Armstrong's lifetime ban from sanctioned events.
He's also had discussions with officials at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, whose 1,000-page report in October included testimony from nearly a dozen former teammates and led to stripping Armstrong of his Tour titles. Shortly after, he lost nearly all his endorsements, was forced to walk away from the Livestrong cancer charity he founded in 1997, and just this week was stripped of his bronze medal from the 2000 Olympics.
Armstrong could provide information that might get his ban reduced to eight years. By then, he would be 49. He returned to triathlons, where he began his professional career as a teenager, after retiring from cycling in 2011, and has told people he's desperate to get back.
Initial reaction from anti-doping officials ranged from hostile to cool.
USADA chief Travis Tygart, who pursued the case against Armstrong when others had stopped, said the cyclist's confession was just a start.
"Tonight, Lance Armstrong finally acknowledged that his cycling career was built on a powerful combination of doping and deceit," Tygart said. "His admission that he doped throughout his career is a small step in the right direction. But if he is sincere in his desire to correct his past mistakes, he will testify under oath about the full extent of his doping activities."
In an interview broadcast on Showtime's "60 Minutes Sports" last week, Tygart told Pelley that Armstrong offered a "significant financial donation" to USADA of somewhere in the ballpark of $250,000.
Tygart also told Pelley that Armstrong was involved in intimidating witnesses to keep them from assisting USADA's investigation.
WADA president John Fahey derided Armstrong's defense that he doped to create "a level playing field" as "a convenient way of justifying what he did a fraud."
"He was wrong, he cheated and there was no excuse for what he did," Fahey said by telephone in Australia.
If Armstrong "was looking for redemption," Fahey added, "he didn't succeed in getting that."
Livestrong issued a statement that said the charity was "disappointed by the news that Lance Armstrong misled people during and after his cycling career, including us."
"Earlier this week, Lance apologized to our staff and we accepted his apology in order to move on and chart a strong, independent course," it said.
The interview revealed very few details about Armstrong's performance-enhancing regimen that would surprise anti-doping officials.