“If you believe in miracles, if you believe in fairy tales, if you believe in life, you believe in Lance Armstrong.” Broadcaster Phil Liggett’s words during the 1999 Tour de France seem deeply ironic in retrospect. “Lance,” an ESPN documentary on what one commentator called a Shakespearean saga, a fairy tale later exposed as a lie, explores an athlete coming to grips with some but not all of the flaws that precipitated his downfall.
Armstrong sounds shocked by the extent of his infamy, which he justifies via supposed ignorance at the extent of his fame. He claims he viewed himself as “just” a cyclist, and not on par with athletes like Michael Phelps or LeBron James, people who have transcended their own sports to become cultural icons.
Nonsense. Armstrong can claim he focused on cycling all he wants, but he can’t deny he achieved things — from Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year to White House visits — most cyclists would never dream of. Try as he might, Armstrong can’t dissociate himself from his stratospheric rise to make his fall seem less dramatic and his deception less extreme.
Born to a teenage mother in 1971, his adoptive stepfather, former soldier Terry Armstrong, gave Lance more than just a surname. Terry Armstrong said he drove Lance “like an animal,” instilling a drive to succeed but little love or affection. Lance’s fire led him to success in sports. He started in swimming before moving to cycling via triathlons. But that fire also became his undoing.
Two events define Armstrong: cancer and cheating. The former made him seem all the greater for achieving his biggest successes after beating advanced testicular cancer. It also made his subsequent fall that much more dramatic, as sports fans felt deceived when a heartwarming story proved too good to be true.
Although he does not know definitively, Armstrong admits the two may have a causal link. He only took human growth hormone during the 1996 cycling season, just prior to his diagnosis that October, and that hormone could have accelerated the tumors’ growth. Armstrong did not help himself any by ignoring symptoms for months, until he began coughing up blood.
Facing cancer that had spread to his lymph nodes, lungs, and brain, doctors gave Armstrong little chance to survive. They sugar-coated the odds to give him hope, even as they had little themselves. But immediate surgery to remove the cancerous testicle, surgery on his brain, and a modified chemotherapy regimen eventually led to a complete recovery.
When Armstrong returned to competitive cycling, he also resumed doping. He had ramped up his doping in the mid-1990s, right before his cancer diagnosis. Armstrong spoke of his heartache when, after winning the 1993 World Championships, he found himself outgunned at the 1994 and 1995 Tours de France. At a time when Armstrong’s career should have progressed, he found himself regressing instead, quite possibly because competitors had mastered the doping game before he had.
Eventually, Armstrong began using erythropoietin to increase his red blood cell count. Stung by slights following his cancer recovery — only the U.S. Postal Service team offered him a contract, and he considered leaving the sport entirely in 1998 — Armstrong continued doping with erythropoietin when he returned to competitive cycling.
To some, Armstrong’s return from cancer to win the 1999 Tour de France looked miraculous, but even at the time, it seemed highly suspicious. Armstrong completed the 1999 Tour at a record pace, 0.3 kilometers an hour faster than the 1998 Tour, which had featured a major doping scandal. It raised a question no one wanted to ask, let alone answer: If the Tour had eliminated all the cheaters in 1998, how could Armstrong set an even faster pace in 1999?
That 1999 win, the first of seven consecutive Tour victories, propelled an entire empire: endorsements, press appearances, and fawning publicity. “Livestrong” bracelets, an idea Nike proposed to promote his foundation, became omnipresent in the mid-2000s, raising at least $84 million for cancer research. But if Lance ever thought about admitting to doping, this branding empire his name supported, which one interviewee called “Armstrong, Inc.,” made such a confession impossible.
The Livestrong Foundation he created, which eventually severed its ties with Armstrong, undoubtedly helped thousands of cancer patients. One interviewee spoke of how learning about Armstrong prompted her to realize that chemotherapy could render her infertile, allowing her and thousands like her to freeze eggs and conceive healthy babies after treatment.
Armstrong’s survival story not only made his comeback more impressive, it also gave him what one observer called the “cancer shield.” As footage from the time demonstrates, Armstrong frequently deployed this strategy to deflect doping allegations: “I just survived cancer. Why would I risk my life consuming foreign substances?”
Rumors Become Real
Despite his good work with Livestrong, the constant doping rumors brought out a vindictive side, in which Armstrong used his power and influence within cycling to browbeat anyone who dared challenge him. In a deposition, he called Emma O’Reilly, his former trainer, a “whore” when she said he had doped. He sued one of his sponsors for withholding $5 million over the drug accusations and won the case. (He later had to admit he perjured himself, and was ordered to pay the sponsors $10 million.)
In 2010, Armstrong’s house of cards finally collapsed. When Floyd Landis, who was caught doping as he “won” the 2006 Tour, attempted a comeback following a two-year ban, Armstrong’s team wouldn’t help resurrect the career of a cycling pariah. Rather than make himself into the lone scapegoat for an entire era of doping, Landis exposed the cheating ring he, Armstrong, and teammates had organized over many years.
Federal prosecutors assembled a massive amount of evidence, relying on cycling teammates who were granted immunity for their testimony. The prosecutors mysteriously dropped the case, but the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency took it up. Confronted with 1,000 pages of evidence, Armstrong lost his Tour titles, any connection to professional cycling, his sponsors, and something more important: the trust of the millions of Americans who believed in him.
Armstrong claims he wouldn’t have changed a thing about his downfall. Rather than cutting a deal with authorities at the outset, Armstrong says he needed a “f-cking nuclear meltdown,” in which his life came crashing down around him, to regain perspective.
But in many ways, he still hasn’t gained that perspective. He calls Landis a “piece of sh-t,” apparently believing Landis should have sacrificed his life and career in service of the Armstrong myth. He says he would discourage his son Luke from taking performance-enhancing drugs right now, as a college freshman playing football, but if Luke were to make it to the NFL, he might then endorse doping. (Tellingly, he didn’t remember his son’s jersey number when speaking to Luke’s Rice University football teammates.)
That someone still grappling with the humiliation he faced for doping would even consider his son doing so — and say so publicly — summarizes the man and the documentary in a nutshell. ESPN showed how, at bottom, Lance Armstrong still doesn’t get it and probably never will.
Both parts of “Lance” will re-air on ESPN and can be found on the ESPN app.