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Lance Armstrong finally shows some emotion

Disgraced cyclist tears up when he describes telling his children that he cheated. He doesn't think he deserves 'death penalty' from competition.

January 19, 2013|By David Wharton

Like most sequels, the second part of Lance Armstrong's two-night, televised interview with Oprah Winfrey lacked the punch and fireworks of the first segment.

All of the major confessions — doping and lying and bullying his accusers — were already out of the way.

So, for much of Friday night's one-hour telecast, Armstrong settled in to discuss the fallout from his scandal, the ways in which it has hurt his family, cancer-fighting foundation and — to just as great an extent — his bank account.

The otherwise calm former athlete teared up for the first and only time when he described telling his children about his history of cheating.

"Don't defend me anymore," he recalled telling them. "Don't."

At the same time, Armstrong expressed a desire to return to sanctioned competition, such as marathons, and seemed to take exception with the lifetime ban that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency handed him last fall.

"I deserve to be punished," he said. "I'm not sure I deserve the death penalty."

The televised confession followed a period of several months in which sports officials cracked down on Armstrong. USADA's 1,000-plus-page report resulted in not only a ban, but also the loss of his seven Tour de France titles.

This week, the International Olympic Committee asked him to return a bronze medal won at the 2000 Summer Games.

In another blow to his reputation, the Livestrong Foundation had previously asked him to leave its board. Armstrong founded the cancer-fighting organization after surviving testicular cancer.

Livestrong became a worldwide success, claiming to sell more than 80 million of its iconic bright-yellow wristbands.

"That foundation is like my sixth child," he said. "To make the decision to step aside, that was big."

The tide of public opinion had been turning against him for several years by that point. His cheating was only part of the problem.

Armstrong showed a penchant for attacking his accusers, using his popularity — and sometimes civil lawsuits — to disparage other cyclists such as Greg LeMond and Frankie Andreu when they questioned his success. He was especially tough on Andreu's wife, Betsy, who claimed that she overheard him admit to doping at an Indiana hospital back in 1996.

"I'm doubtful he understands what he really did to people," said LeMond's wife, Kathy, after viewing the first night's portion of the interview. "He's not there yet. He's not at bottom."

The scandal has taken its toll on his family, Armstrong said. He recalled seeing the concern in his mother's face and explained that he finally decided to confess to cheating after hearing his older children repeatedly defend him at school.

He has three kids with his former wife, Kristin, and two with current girlfriend Anna Hansen. Of particular concern was his oldest son, Luke.

"That's when I knew I had to tell him," Armstrong said. "And he'd never asked me."

As for the public at large, Americans have a kind of unspoken agreement with their heroes, said Scott Allison, a psychology professor at the University of Richmond.

"When heroes misbehave, I think we see it as a breach of contract," said Allison, who co-wrote "Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them."

The emotion that Armstrong showed during Friday night's telecast, however brief, might have represented a small step in the right direction for his image.

"I think we need to see them suffering," Allison said of fallen heroes. "We need to see them squirm and humiliate themselves as a price they pay for breaking the contract."

That price has extended beyond Armstrong's dignity. After the USADA report, he recalled getting one phone call after another from the corporate sponsors who had made him one of the sporting world's richest endorsers.

Nike, Anheuser-Busch, Trek bicycles. All of them parted ways with him in short order.

"I don't like thinking about it," he said. "But that was, I don't know, a $75-million day."

During other parts of Friday's show, Armstrong denied trying to bribe USADA to stop its investigation. He insisted that — with Kristin's urging — he raced clean during a comeback that included a third-place finish at the 2009 Tour de France.

"I expected to win," he said. "At the end, I said to myself, I just got beat."

Throughout the 21/2-hour interview, Armstrong spoke repeatedly of spending the rest of his years making amends to the family, colleagues and fans he let down.

"I can say that 1,000 times," he said. "And it may never be enough."

Winfrey finished the show by suggesting that the truth might set him free. In the meantime, Armstrong said he is undergoing therapy and trying to find a way to get on with his life.

"I feel ashamed," he said. "Yeah, this is ugly stuff."

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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