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From belief to betrayal: How America fell for Lance Armstrong

In the wake of Lance Armstrong's admission to Oprah Winfrey that he used performance-enhancing drugs, the World Anti-Doping Agency is telling the cyclist he must tell the truth under oath if he ever wants to return to competitive sports, and former friends and teammates agree. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

The suspicions were there from the start. And so were the convincing denials.

In an early ad for Nike, Lance Armstrong met insinuations of doping head-on.

“This is my body and I can do whatever I want to it,” he says in the commercial, inspirational at the time but hollowly ironic now.

“I can push it, and study it, tweak it, listen to it,” he continues. “Everybody wants to know what I’m on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?”

A YouTube video of Lance Armstrong's "What Are You On?" Nike commercial from 2001.

Armstrong’s astounding post-cancer comeback was still in its infancy when suggestions that he might not be clean surfaced with a report of steroids in his urine during his first Tour de France victory in 1999.

He rejected them with what would become the hallmarks of his many denials: a flash of anger, a complaint of persecution, a pointed reference to his status as a survivor.

“They say stress causes cancer," Armstrong said when confronted with the test result. "So if you want to avoid cancer, don't come to the Tour de France and wear the yellow jersey."

His explanation -- that saddle-sore cream had caused the trace positive -- apparently satisfied the sport’s governing body. The early whiff of scandal did not stop him from crossing the line on the Champs-Elysees that year – or the next six.

With each victory, Armstrong’s riches and popularity grew until it seemed like half the country had a yellow Livestrong charity bracelet dangling from their wrists.

In 2005, a Gallup poll found 79 percent of people questioned had a favorable opinion of him. He made $17.5 million in endorsements that year and was engaged to singer Sheryl Crow.

Questions about whether he was using performance enhancers had been mounting by the year: a 2000 probe into a report that a team staffer was caught disposing of drugs, a 2004 French book that alleged Armstrong juiced, the 2006 confessions of former teammates who admitted doping.

Armstrong always responded the same way, with unequivocal denials and threats of legal action.

“I have never doped,” he told Larry King in 2005, sounding exasperated at having to repeat himself.

In a 2007 interview, he played the cancer card. “I was on my death bed. You think I’m going to come back into a sport and say, 'OK, doctor, give me everything you got. I just want to go fast.' No way.”

He didn't dodge the accusations, he used them. His voiceover for a Nike ad during a 2009 comeback: "The critics say I'm arrogant. A doper. Washed up. A fraud. That I couldn't let it go. They can say whatever they want. I'm not back on my bike for them."

YouTube video of Lance Armstrong's 2009 "Driven" ad for Nike in which he notes that critics call him a "doper" and "a fraud."

There was no smoking-gun test result to refute him, and some of his critics were confessed liars.

A teammate’s wife who testified was dismissed as a harridan with a vendetta. Finger-pointing ex-teammate Floyd Landis was accused of “harassment.” Even a federal investigation was branded “un-American” by Armstrong’s lawyer.

The champion didn’t back down when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency charged and suspended him in June, boasting that he had “passed more than 500 drug tests and never failed one.”

'Witch hunt'
Even his one act of surrender – his August announcement that he would not fight the agency's charges – was tinged with defiance. The probe was a “witch hunt,” the claims mere “nonsense” and “enough is enough,” he said.

Armstrong’s sponsors were abandoning him, but he still had ardent defenders. In a Newsweek cover story, sports writer Buzz Bissinger declared the cyclist “a hero, one of the few we have left in a country virtually bereft of them.”

OWN via Getty Images

Lance Armstrong during his interview with Oprah Winfrey, which airs Thursday and Friday. The cyclist's historic run of Tour de France championships made headlines, as did his fall from grace after being stripped of the titles in 2012.

The tide of public opinion had clearly turned, though. A couple of weeks after USADA released its damning report on Oct. 10, a Seton Hall Sports Poll found only a third of the respondents had a positive opinion of Armstrong.

This week's confession to Oprah Winfrey may be a bid to recoup some of the goodwill he once enjoyed and salvage his legacy, but the Johnny-come-lately reversal could backfire. Those who continued to back Armstrong even as the evidence became harder to ignore are as likely to feel betrayal as sympathy.

Count Bissinger among them.

“He is an immoral, manipulative liar who doesn’t deserve a second more of anybody’s time,” he wrote on the Daily Beast this week, asking readers not to watch the interview that airs Thursday and Friday.

“Don’t continue to feed his insufferable ego. Don’t give him the satisfaction. Let him be what he has become: Unimportant and worthless.”

Tune in to TODAY Friday for an exclusive live interview with Livestrong CEO Doug Ulman. 


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