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Oprah Winfrey speaks at at Edmonton's Rexall Place arena, Jan. 21, 2013. (Greg Paupst/Northlands for The Globe and Mail)
Oprah Winfrey speaks at at Edmonton's Rexall Place arena, Jan. 21, 2013. (Greg Paupst/Northlands for The Globe and Mail)

WESTERN CANADA MINI-TOUR

Oprah defends her interview with Lance: 'no judgment, no agenda' Add to ...

Before Lance Armstrong arrived, Oprah Winfrey cleared the room, meditated and prayed. She didn’t want to pass judgment on the man soon to be before her, a 41-year-old fallen cycling legend about to deliver a staggering mea culpa. It didn’t matter if he was guilty, if he’d lied or if he’d leveraged it all to build a global brand. Ms. Winfrey had, instead, learned her lesson with James Frey, the disgraced author whose tailspin engulfed her book club.

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She regrets being too harsh on Mr. Frey. Lance Armstrong would be different, and more relaxed – “my presence to his presence,” Ms. Winfrey recalls. A seven-time Tour de France winner, doper and serial denier coming to terms with his fall from grace, across from a 58-year-old long-time TV icon struggling to launch what she calls her “next chapter,” an eponymous TV network. The stakes were high.

“This is what I think about Lance: I think that that was one of the hardest things in his life that he has had to do. I think that he was ready to do it,” Ms. Winfrey told an Edmonton audience during a live show Monday evening, after her Armstrong interview aired in two parts last week.

“At the end of the meditation, I prayed to surrender the whole thing. To let it go. So that I could be in the space of no judgment, no agenda. I had made the mistake with James Frey in of having such anger with him, because he, you know, I thought had lied and betrayed the book club and all that stuff. And I had all of my own ego and energy in it,” she said.

Mr. Frey was revealed to have fabricated or exaggerated parts of his popular memoir, A Million Little Pieces . Ms. Winfrey first stood by him before, in a 2006 interview, eviscerating him as a liar. It was a performance some praised but one she’d apologize for five years later, and it was on her mind now. “My prayer for Lance was to take my ego and any agenda I might have out of it, and to meet him – my presence to his presence,” she said.

What followed, in an interview held at the Four Seasons in Mr. Armstrong’s hometown of Austin, Tex., was what the Guardian newspaper coined “TV history.” It was an admission from the sports icon that drew millions of viewers to Ms. Winfrey’s channel. For roughly 100 minutes, Ms. Winfrey pressed Mr. Armstrong on what drugs he used, how some were hidden, his lawsuits and attacks against those who’ve already outed him and what his eldest son said when he learned his dad had been lying.

Many critics, however, thought Ms. Winfrey was characteristically soft – lobbing Mr. Armstrong plenty of softballs and letting obvious follow-up questions pass unasked. Armstrong critic and journalist Paul Kimmage told the Irish Independent Ms. Winfrey “dropped the ball” and failed to press Mr. Armstrong on key points. Globe and Mail columnist Bruce Dowbiggin wrote that Ms. Winfrey’s “scatter-shot approach repeatedly let Armstrong off the hook.” Newsday TV critic Verne Gay lamented Ms. Winfrey offered “no push back.”

In short, viewers wanted some of the fire she had with Mr. Frey, but she brushes off the criticism when asked about those who say she took it easy on Mr. Armstrong. “I shall let the work speak for itself,” Ms. Winfrey told The Globe before her show Monday evening.

The Armstrong topic came up a handful of times over her two-hour show at Edmonton’s Rexall Place arena. It was part autobiography, part new-age sermon and part motivational speech, one of three shows she’ll do in Western Canada this week. Her tour continues in Calgary on Tuesday and Vancouver on Thursday.

 Speaking to a raucous, packed house of devotees, Ms. Winfrey recalled Mr. Armstrong had met her at her home one week before the interview.

“I didn’t know I was going to get the interview, because he said when he left, ‘I’ll let you know.’ And I thought okay, I’ve got four or five months, because he’d said, ‘I’m going to take my time.’ Then when he called the next day and said, ‘Let’s go.’ I said, like, now?”

She began scrambling, learning everything she could about cycling – joking to her crowd Monday that it was Mr. Armstrong who interrupted her latest diet. She read books by journalist David Walsh, who Mr. Armstrong sued for early doping reports, and the rider’s former teammate, Tyler Hamilton. With her staff, she compiled a list of 112 questions. Then, she prayed.

Ms. Winfrey’s critics say she was too easy on Mr. Armstrong; the way she tells it, that’s precisely the point. Ms. Winfrey – as much a spiritual icon as media titan as of late – sees him as a figure worthy of salvation. “Yes, everybody has the ability to rise again. Maybe not, you know, to cycling fame. But what really matters in the world is what kind of human being he chooses to be, and I think he has it within him to be one of the great ones. He does,” she said.

At one point, she sided with Mr. Armstrong’s claim that he lost perspective on the scale of what he called “one big lie,” likening his transgressions to parents who find themselves surprised with how quickly their kids grow up.

“He said, you know, it was just so big, I couldn’t see it. I said nobody’s going to believe that. But I understood – that when you’re in it, it’s no different than you in your life. You turn around and your kids are seven, then they’re 12. Then they’re 15, then they’re out of the house. And you’re like how did that happen? Because life is just happening with you, around you, all the time. And when you’re in the centre of your life, you really can’t see it. You need perspective to see it,” Ms. Winfrey told the crowd.

Once the Austin interview was over, Mr. Armstrong asked a question, one Ms. Winfrey claims most of her subjects do – he asked how he did. In that, she sees a “human being seeking validation,” one now abandoned by his fans, supporters and sponsors, one trying to recover from being – in his own words – an “arrogant prick.” Ms. Winfrey, though, has faith in Mr. Armstrong’s mission of redemption.

“That was the first step to him making that confession. And the real truth is that your life isn’t about a bike, and it isn’t about the races, it isn’t about the mistakes that you’ve made, it really is about how to figure out how to be a better human being,” she said. “And if he is willing to do the work to do that, he can become a real hero in his life, for himself and – maybe – for the world. The real world [for Mr. Armstrong] is just starting, if you ask me.”

In Ms. Winfrey, Mr. Armstrong found not only a compassionate ear, but a champion. Some say she let him off the hook, and that’s fine by Ms. Winfrey as she moves to her so-called next chapter. The interview, she says, shall speak for itself.

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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