“It’s a miracle I’m not a mass murderer,” Lance Armstrong, reflecting on his mother Linda’s laissez-faire approach to parenting, muses in the opening scenes of Lance, the new two-part ESPN documentary whose first half screens in the US on Sunday night. In the 10 minutes that follow, director Marina Zenovich assembles a tableau of reminiscences that make that shocking admission seem somehow understandable. We see Armstrong’s stepfather, Terry Armstrong, claim that “Lance would not be the champion he is today without me, because I drove him. I drove him like an animal.” (“He beat the shit out of me,” Lance recalls.) We hear Armstrong explaining how he forged his birth certificate to pass himself off as a 16-year-old and enter his first triathlon, rationalizing the deception with cool command: “Forge the certificate, compete illegally, and beat everybody.” We watch as cycling contemporary Bobby Julich recalls how, at the end of his first head-to-head race against Armstrong, when they were both still teenagers, Armstrong yelled at him: “Come on you fucking pussy, let’s keep going – I’m not done yet.”
The casual violence, the callous disregard for rules and the feelings of others: Armstrong did not come to any of these late in life, once his course as a professional cyclist was set. He was practically marinating in insensitivity from the womb. Born into a rotten system, Armstrong stayed rotten. What emerges at the end of these four hours is the story not so much of a single bad apple as a profoundly bad batch – a comprehensive, cradle-to-gallows account of the downfall of an elite athlete performing exactly in line with his surrounding incentives. Amid the brutality, competition, and insecurity of life in post-Reagan America, is it any wonder a man like Lance Armstrong was able to lie, cheat and bully his way to the top? The problem is not this man in particular, Zenovich seems to invite us to conclude, as men in general: their incurable ambition and violence, the fragility of their morals.
This structural explanation for Armstrong’s wrongdoing sounds exculpatory, and to a degree it is. It’s certainly one that Armstrong himself appears eager to embrace. Zenovich sat for eight interviews with Armstrong, between March 2018 and August 2019, and it’s those conversations that form the core of Lance, which takes in the full sweep of the Armstrong saga, from his childhood and breakthrough world cycling championship at the age of 21, to cancer, his first experiences with cortisone and growth hormones, the seven consecutive Tour de France victories, his belligerence in the face of doping allegations, and the final unravelling of his career, from 2010 to 2013, as the full extent of his drug use came finally to light. Zenovich says Armstrong set no ground rules for their discussions (“Nothing is off limits,” he told her) but she cannot identify, even after two years of work on Lance, exactly what his motivation for participating in the documentary was. Was it an exercise in image rehabilitation? An attempt, in the cliched language of sporting redemption, to “tell his story”? “I don’t really know,” says Zenovich. “But I came to it with an open heart. I tried to straddle the good and the bad.”
In Lance we see Armstrong combative, defensive, distracted and restless, the coiled fury that propelled him – back arched, eyes dead-ahead, through all those time trials and mountain stages – still very much visible. What we don’t see much of is remorse or self-reflection. Armstrong’s preferred pronouns throughout the documentary are “you” and “we”. “I” does not get much of a workout: “The only way you can dope and be honest is if nobody ever asks you, which is not realistic. The second somebody asks you, you lie. We all lied.”
Doping, Armstrong maintains, “was just ingrained in the sport, right up until the time that I got there from Plano, Texas.” His basic thesis is that he was a blameless naif, thrust into the maw of an evil sport. Here he is, for instance, on the development of EPO and his own turn to doping, under the tutelage of the notorious drug doctor Michele Ferrari, from the mid-1990s: “The performance benefits were so great. The sport went from low octane doping, which had always existed, to this high octane rocket fuel. So that was the decision we had to make.”
Cheating, in other words, was the work of a collective, which makes it easy to resist personal responsibility – as Armstrong clearly still does. Derek Bouchard-Hall, the former CEO of USA cycling and a contemporary of Armstrong, tells Zenovich that “there were no morals and ethics” around doping in the 1990s, that people “were still figuring things out, and we forget that now” – as if the history of drug use at the Olympics, anabolic steroids, Ben Johnson and all the rest had somehow passed the world of cycling by. This is, of course, an assertion as ludicrous as it is unbelievable – but it offers an insight into the intensity of the delusion that pervaded the sport that Armstrong came to dominate.
Armstrong reveals himself, throughout Lance, to be a master at evading the question – at reframing it, redefining it, and stacking it with caveats in order to cast himself in a better light. It’s Not About the Bike, his 2000 autobiography, he tells Zenovich with a completely straight face, was unfairly picked apart, because “everything in that book was true, except for when I address doping”. The accusation that he used Livestrong, his cancer foundation, as a “shield” to protect himself from doping allegations is “unfair”, he maintains – “though I used cancer occasionally as a shield”.
Despite the pantomime of self-examination that Armstrong performs, reluctantly, throughout Lance, what comes across most convincingly is his lack of regret. “I wouldn’t change a thing”, he tells Zenovich – and it seems true that for Armstrong the most critical injunction of living is still, as he says repeatedly, to “get your hate on”.
The scale of Armstrong’s remorselessness can be grasped in the intensity of the venom and contempt he maintains for many of his contemporaries. Former competitors who now greet each other warmly, he says, are “wimps”. Floyd Landis, the former teammate whose testimony provided the impetus for the US Anti-Doping Agency investigation that eventually brought Armstrong down, is dismissed as a “piece of shit”. Armstrong describes Julich, in virtually the same breath, as both a “friend” and a “whiner”. Ironically it’s left to Landis himself to offer the most telling appraisal of Armstrong’s character. Reflecting on his own attempts to deflect doping allegations after he failed drug tests in the wake of his 2006 Tour victory, Landis says: “It’s hard lying to people, I’m not very good at it. Lance is very very good at it … He’s very uncomfortable being himself.”
The documentary’s only real moment of vulnerability comes when Armstrong reflects on his friendship with Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner who spent the early 2000s in second place on the final-day podium in Paris, before succumbing to his own drug-borne fall from grace the year after Armstrong retired. In 2018 Armstrong travelled to Germany to visit Ullrich, who’d just been released from the psychiatric hospital to which he’d been admitted after a series of assault charges. Zenovich asks why he went to see Ullrich. “The reason I went to see him is I love him,” Armstrong replies, before breaking down in tears. “It was not a good trip. He was the most important person in my life.”
Within moments, however, that vulnerability is gone and Armstrong has re-armored himself in a carapace of sneers. A rant about how Ivan Basso, Erik Zabel and George Hincapie are household names in Italy, Germany and the US – are they? – while Marco Pantani, Ullrich and Armstrong are dead or disgraced follows, and then it becomes clear: this moment of emotional authenticity is really an exercise in self-pity. If me, Armstrong seems to say, why not them as well?
Coming as it does on the heels of The Last Dance’s uncomplicated celebration of success and competition, Lance offers a welcome study in the corruption of the male athletic ego. The line between Michael Jordan – brash, insensitive, gifted, wildly successful – and Lance Armstrong – brash, insensitive, gifted, wildly successful, and a drug cheat – is syringe-thin. If Lance, like its subject’s career, proves the ease with which that line can be crossed, the road to self-recognition, for Armstrong at least, appears far more demanding. In the opening minutes of the documentary, Armstrong recounts a scene at a restaurant, shortly after his exposure as a drug cheat, at which he was assailed by a crowd of angry patrons yelling, “Fuck you!” Armstrong comments with a shrug: “Some people just can’t chill the fuck out. They’re pissed still, and they’ll be pissed forever.” What’s obvious is that Armstrong himself, even after years to reflect on his misdeeds and manipulations, still can’t see that he’s exactly the same: an angry man, who will probably never be quite himself without his rage.
Part one of Lance premieres on 25 May, with part two showing on 1 June. It can be viewed on ESPN in in the US, and ESPN’s streaming platform in the rest of the world.