The Dope on Lance

What have we really learned about the cycling legend?

Wayne England/Flickr
Wayne England/Flickr

The history of sports is littered with stories of the disgraced—cheaters and dopers, morally suspect and vulgar characters whose sublime exploits on the field are matched only by the ugliness of the ones off. I’m thinking of the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919, in which eight Chicago White Sox players were banned from baseball for allegedly throwing World Series games for cash. Or of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who won gold in the 100 meters at the 1988 Seoul Olympics before testing positive for steroids, and then popped another positive test during his comeback to earn a lifetime ban. Or of Tonya Harding, whose ex-husband’s friend hired a hit man to knee-cap rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 national championships, leading to Harding’s own lifetime ban. In this pantheon of athletic infamy, Lance Armstrong occupies a distinguished position. A stage-three cancer survivor, he won seven Tour de France titles and inspired legions of fellow survivors during his rise to global superstardom, before he was exposed as a cheat, a vindictive doper who defamed anyone who dared expose his secret.

In Lance, a two-part documentary directed by Marina Zenovich for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series (part two airs this Sunday), Armstrong returns, more defiant than contrite. The series, part of the recent mini-boom of pandemic-era sports films (Michael Jordan just enjoyed his 10 hours of screen time), is smooth-flowing and compact. It may not break much new ground, but Armstrong remains compelling TV. Lance elicits the full spectrum of competing emotions. Awe, at the footage of Armstrong on a bike, bald from chemotherapy, his head scarred from brain surgery, starting his slow ascent back to the pinnacle of cycling. Respect, for his work with the Livestrong Foundation and role in helping make cancer a less private and lonely battle. (“I truly believe if you are diagnosed with cancer in America today, your experience is better than it was pre-Lance and pre-Livestrong. Like irrefutably better,” says Lindsay Beck, herself a two-time survivor and the founder of Fertility Hope, now part of Livestrong.) Disgust, at his history of character assassination and refusal to forgive Floyd Landis, his teammate who was also stripped of a Tour de France title for doping, and who exposed Armstrong’s own history of drug use. (The takedown of Landis in episode two is Armstrong at his most despicable.)

The drive, the bullying, the authority issues—they were all there from the beginning. His mother was just 17 when he was born; a stepfather who helped raise him imposed military-style discipline, giving the boy his “licks,” possibly with a fraternity paddle. Armstrong, a precocious triathlete-turned-cyclist, left home for good at 17 and signed his first pro contract soon after. He radiated a ruthless intensity on the bike, was a notorious “badass,” as one former rider describes him. If Jordan was the king of mining petty grievances for motivation, Armstrong deserves at least a knighthood: “If it was an intense day, I would have to make up these little rivalries, even if they didn’t exist. Just get my hate on.” The problem for Armstrong: “I couldn’t be a different person off the bike.”

In sports, forgiveness and redemption can be mercurial. Who gets welcomed back into the fold, and who gets shunned? Tiger Woods’s failings were personal, his suffering public, and because he was laid bare, because he was judged to have served his sentence, his underdog victory in last year’s Masters was celebrated. American sprinter Justin Gatlin served two separate suspensions for doping, returned to the track in 2010, won multiple medals (beating Usain Bolt in the 2017 World Championships), and somehow—a point that did not go unnoticed—ran faster than he did before being caught. Pete Rose, baseball’s hit leader, and Barry Bonds, its home run king, still await their pardons; not uncoincidentally, both adopted a public relations strategy of petulant whining. Bonds, the poster boy of the steroids era and perennial abuser of the media, has been snubbed by those same writers for induction into Cooperstown. Rose, banned from baseball for gambling on the game as manager of the Cincinnati Reds, has recently gained support for reinstatement from Donald Trump, whose sympathy for disgraced celebrities appears bottomless (see Rod Blagojevich).

Earning a pardon without a humble display of atonement is a more difficult climb than any Armstrong faced on the bike. He does regret calling Emma O’Reilly, a team masseuse who went public with evidence of his doping, a “whore.” He regrets using cancer as a fake defense for why he would never risk his health by taking illegal drugs. And he regrets not being a “better man.” But he also clings to a defiant (and contradictory) mantra: “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Can we honor Armstrong’s athletic achievements without condoning his personal failings? He was a world champion at 21 and spent the following season getting his “ass kicked,” thanks to the arrival of synthetic erythropoietin, or EPO, which stimulated red cell production. At first, there wasn’t even a test for it; its use was rampant in cycling. Armstrong had already dabbled in cortisone, and in choosing potential glory over ethical scruples, he was hardly alone. In the documentary, Armstrong’s oldest son, now a football player at Rice University, describes doping as a shortcut to success, but that’s not quite right; it’s less a shortcut than a way to recover faster and train harder. Armstrong’s sessions on the bike were legendary. “Lance was a force of nature–he would have won anywhere and everywhere,” the Italian cyclist Ivan Basso, a formal rival who also served a doping ban, said this week. Think about what Armstrong did. Think about what it must have been like to contemplate a too-early-death from your hospital bed, somehow survive, struggle so much early in your comeback that you consider retiring, persevere, and will yourself (and the sport) into a lofty new realm, all the while serving as a beacon of hope for those ravaged by cancer. It’s a remarkable achievement, drugs or no drugs. There’s inspiration to be found there, even knowing what we now know.

Then think about what it must have been like not to have doped in that era, to have sacrificed potential fame for personal principles. Perhaps, if everyone had competed clean, Armstrong wouldn’t have been the champion he was; perhaps he was an especially good responder to his drug regimen. We’re left with hypotheticals and uncertainties—the new normal in sports, at least until the testers finally catch up to the cheaters, or until the chase is abandoned and (as some argue it should be) doping is legalized. In the end, Armstrong’s athletic legacy is nuanced, and nuance tends not to thrive in the court of public opinion. He will always represent a kind of ignominious shorthand for doper and cheater.

Armstrong’s is a deeply American story: the humble beginnings, the rugged independence, the extraordinary comeback and fabled victories, the embrace of Hollywood celebrity, and then the tragic downfall, accelerated by the same hubris and ferocity that had made him a champion to begin with. His belligerence now is, in some respects, understandable: How many retired athletes who also doped haven’t been exposed, their reputations still intact? How many other sinners have been welcomed back into the fold? But they also probably didn’t sue their accusers into submission, violate the public trust with a decades-long, self-righteous campaign of innocence, use a cancer diagnosis to deflect suspicion, and then adopt a sorry-not-sorry party line. Contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are second acts in American life. But there’s no sign yet that Armstrong has struck upon his—a sequel that might help soften the legacy of deceit and personal destruction he left in his wake. There’s no sign yet that he’s even capable of finding the right gear.

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Eric Wills has written about history, sports, and design for Smithsonian, The Washington Post, GQ, the Scholar, and other publications. He was formerly a senior editor at Architect magazine.


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