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Oprah Winfrey says viewers who tune in to her cable talk show this Thursday and Friday will witness the confession of former cycling champion Lance Armstrong. The interview is just the latest chapter in Armstrong's long and complicated history with the media.

As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, Armstrong has spent his career alternately charming, manipulating and stiff-arming journalists.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Americans don't pay much attention to cycling as a sport - a bit during the 1980s, when American cyclist Greg LeMond won the Tour de France three times. But that interest soared in the 1990s, when an intriguing former triathlete cycled furiously, and overcame testicular cancer to win his first Tour de France.

ESPN correspondent Jeremy Schaap recalls covering Armstrong back then, and being impressed by his charisma and insight.

JEREMY SCHAAP: In many ways, Lance Armstrong was the most compelling and interesting athlete I've been around. He had this way about him; this confidence, this arrogance that was, in a way, appealing, and he was also extraordinarily thoughtful.

FOLKENFLIK: But there was another side, too. His cycling performance was so extraordinary, it was almost as though he were riding in a different race from his competitors. And that triggered suspicion about Armstrong, in a sport that had already proven rife with doping. Armstrong's denials were adamant and categorical; and he often invoked his comeback from cancer, as he did here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LANCE ARMSTRONG: I was on my deathbed. You think I'm going to come back into a sport and say, OK - OK, doctor, give me everything you've got; I just want to go fast. No way. I would never do that.

FOLKENFLIK: Armstrong had become a hero, to many Americans, and was able to circumvent the cycling press corps as he promoted his cancer research foundation and talked directly to the public through his own books and commercials, such as this one for Nike.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKE AD)

ARMSTRONG: Everybody wants to know what I'm on. What am I on? I'm on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?

FOLKENFLIK: Even so, ESPN's Schaap says, Armstrong vigorously courted the reporters who covered him, trying to turn them against their skeptical peers even in the face of allegations from former cyclists or colleagues that he had been cheating.

SCHAAP: In terms of dealing with Armstrong, you know, it was always a very carefully choreographed dance because he did have this way - and has this way - of talking to members of the media, in trying to enlist your support.

FOLKENFLIK: Armstrong transcended the world of cycling, and much of the coverage from nonsports media was adulatory. NBC's Ann Curry flew to Paris to interview Armstrong after each of his seven victories. And though in 2002 she got him to empathetically deny ever doping, her interview after his 2005 retirement went more like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ARMSTRONG: No, I don't. No, I don't.

ANN CURRY: Come on.

ARMSTRONG: I don't.

CURRY: You do.

ARMSTRONG: I don't.

CURRY: You're saying you have no political aspirations.

FOLKENFLIK: But in recent years, the conversation has turned almost exclusively to the accusations, accreting like snowdrifts in a blizzard. And now that he has been expelled from the sport and stripped of his titles, Armstrong has turned to Oprah Winfrey. She needs the ratings help for her cable channel, called OWN.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS THIS MORNING")

OPRAH WINFREY: I think it's certainly the biggest interview I've ever done, in terms of its exposure.

FOLKENFLIK: The ad time has sold out at premium rates, for both nights of the interview. On Tuesday, Winfrey told close friend Gayle King and the other hosts of "CBS This Morning" that Armstrong was forthcoming. But she said...

WINFREY: I would say he did not come clean in the manner that I expected. We were mesmerized and riveted by some of his answers.

FOLKENFLIK: Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins has written two books with Armstrong, and she says his life shouldn't be judged solely by his actions as an athlete.

SALLY JENKINS: I think it's just common sense that, you know, when other people are talking about you and what you've done, your best side doesn't show.

FOLKENFLIK: In a column last month, Jenkins wrote she's not angry at her friend and collaborator. But, she says, some of the evidence in the report released last fall by the United States Anti-Doping Agency is pretty damning.

JENKINS: I think he hopes that by talking, people will see the real Lance Armstrong. I think he feels that the portrait of him is, in some ways, very overdrawn; and he'd like to counter, you know, some of the nastier implications in that report.

FOLKENFLIK: Winfrey often asks sharp questions, but she is equally known as an empathetic interviewer, one who relates to her fellow celebrities, and her shows have frequently served as a platform from which people seek public redemption. Winfrey told CBS that she had taken the assignment of interviewing Armstrong seriously.

WINFREY: I had prepared. I'd read the recent decision. I watched all of Scott Pelley's reports. I read David Walsh's books. I had prepared and prepared, like it was a college exam.

FOLKENFLIK: Again, ESPN's Jeremy Schaap.

SCHAAP: It is very telling, I think, that after having dealt with so many people in the media so closely, for so long - in the sports media, that when he ultimately decides to come clean, he does it with someone who's not from that world.

FOLKENFLIK: This week, Lance Armstrong has much riding on his performance off the bike. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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