Lance Armstrong Documentary Part 2 - What Did We Learn?
A couple of weeks ago on this blog, I wrote a part 1 in this series about the new two-part Lance Armstrong documentary, which aired on ESPN and BT Sport. This was, in short, background info as to why this is a difficult watch for me. In this part, I’m writing purely about my impressions of the documentary, having seen it, by outlining my overall conclusions, and then giving specific examples from each point to help demonstrate this i.e. not giving a full chronology/blow by blow account. I’ll also likely write a part 3 discussing doping in sport more generally, discussing methods and motivations.
As a caveat, I will acknowledge that I am watching it knowing a lot of the background and history. If you are less aware of what happened, then you may view it differently/get something else from it. Up front, it is also worth acknowledging that my overall feeling before, during and after, is one of anger – it’s a very good thing that a new series of Queer Eye has been released to offset that. However, I am trying to take into account that the issues raised are not black and white, and acknowledge that there is an alternate view of him. One of the journalists in the documentary says makes a point about the difficulty in distinguishing between good people who do bad things, and bad people who do good things. He’s someone who traverses that distinction very easily, depending on your background.
What Did We Learn That Was New?
In the trailers for the documentary, one of the clips has Armstrong stating “I’m going to tell you my truth”. I was under the impression going into this that it was the absolute confessional documentary. The one where we would get answers to some serious questions that remain outstanding. We don’t get that. It features a lot of archive footage and interviews with ex-team mates/rivals/journalists, and has a lot more of a biography feel about it. There is a surreal feeling in watching the archive race footage and press conferences around his cancer diagnosis, but they are common knowledge.
However, you are tuning in to hear him speak about his involvement in a dark period of cycling. I found I didn’t learn a lot new, though. For me, though, what comes across is that by saying “my truth”, what we actually get is a lot of evidence that Armstrong has constructed a narrative for himself to be at peace with what he did. That’s not the same thing as fully acknowledging and taking responsibility/being accountable for your actions. As a result, he doesn’t appear to really show much contrition for me – he is still the Scooby Doo villain that would have got away with it if it hadn’t been for them pesky kids. He has one tone in front of the camera, apart from a couple of moments (more on that later) which to me indicate finding someone else to blame. To play devil's advocate, I can understand the narrative of "I wouldn't change a thing, because it's made me a better person", but that's not really remorse to me.
The very opening of part 1 of the documentary features Armstrong telling a story about how, when he was out in public, no one could bring themselves to come up to him and say “f### you Lance”. Finally, someone did this to him when he was out at a restaurant. He left, but on the way out, paid for the person’s meal, on the condition that the waiter said to the customer specifically that he had taken care of the bill. In this story, he’s still controlling the narrative of ‘being a good guy’ in buying dinner for someone who hates him. If he does want to buy me a Nando’s, it won’t entirely make it up to me, but it’s a start (although he’d probably insist on me having to have lemon and herb, which is just pointless).
There are two points which I think merit their own in-depth look later, but there are a couple of things to take away.
There are several points which are intriguing (one infuriating). We have interview clips with David, Armstrong’s son. David was about 12 years old when his father confessed to doping. We hear a bit about the impact at school, and we see that he is now playing college American Football, completely distancing himself from cycling. We have Armstrong admit that his return to cycling, following his 2005 retirement, was because he was bored, and didn’t rate the winner of the tour, Carlos Sastre, as a high calibre cyclist.
Next, Armstrong is asked what the worst thing he ever did was. His response is his response to Emma O’Reilly (a former soigneur/masseur for the team who, concerned about the welfare of cyclists, spoke out) in what we’ll carefully say was in a public, and vitriolic manner. On a personal level, that might be the case, but he did lie under oath in a deposition in 2005. He says everyone should be asked that question – mine isn’t running through a field of wheat. It’s swapping the beds around in my 4th year undergrad house when I moved in, so I got the double bed, and my housemate got a single bed.
The infuriating one for me is something I wanted him to address properly. His ex-team mate, Frankie Andreu, and his wife, Betsy, claimed that when they were visiting him in hospital, Armstrong, in front of them, told the doctor about his use of performance enhancing drugs. In the Oprah interview, he avoids saying it happened. This time we get the answer (I’m paraphrasing, I’m not watching it again) “if it makes people happy to say it happened, then OK, it happened, but I don’t remember it”. That is not the same thing as saying it happened, and plays into my worries about Armstrong’s “my truth” narrative. It’s a convenient omission, in the same way “I’m sorry you feel that…” isn’t the same as “I’m sorry that happened”.
The Floyd Landis Bitterness
There are two points at which Armstrong deviates away from the tone he uses for 95% of the documentary. The first is when discussing his ex-team mate, Floyd Landis. The cliff notes here are that in cycling, there was a code of silence, called the ‘omerta’. If you kept quiet about what happened, then in the long-term, you would be taken care of. Landis rode with Armstrong, then Armstrong retired for the first time at the 2005 Tour de France. Landis moved to another team, and (heavy inverted commas here) ‘won’ the 2006 Tour. However, he failed a drugs test during the race, had his title taken away from him, and served a suspension. Flash forward a couple of years, Armstrong has returned to the sport with his own team, and Landis’ suspension is served. Landis approached Armstrong about riding for his team. They refused to sign him. Landis’ response was, in effect, “I did what was required of me, you haven’t reciprocated, so I am going to blow the whistle on what happened”. This triggered the series of investigations into doping in cycling, which led to Armstrong’s complete ban from competitive sport and the removal of all of his titles. (On a complete side note, Landis now operates a legal marijuana dispensary, called ‘Floyds of Leadville’. His story of coming from a mennonite community, to professional cyclist, to marijuana shop owner is one I’d like to see a documentary about).
We see a clip of Armstrong at a Q&A where someone asks about his relationship with Landis now. He says there’s never going to be a relationship there. The documentary then cuts between that Q&A, separate interviews, and interviews with Landis himself. I will censor this a little bit, but he’s not exactly complementary, and clearly views Landis’ whistle blowing as worse than his own actions. This, to me, shows wanting to blame someone else for your own faults. Granted, I have also have ‘I want nothing to do with person X’ stances with some people I used to be close with, however I didn’t cheat and create a lie. Armstrong did.
The Ullrich/Pantani Moment
This, tellingly for me, is the only time I felt that Armstrong didn’t have a pre-planned/prepared answer. It comes very late in the 2nd part of the documentary. Knowing the standing of, and what happened to two cyclists is key to what happens next.
Jan Ullrich was Armstrong’s main rival. Ullrich won the Tour de France in 1997, but was caught in his own doping controversy – he was listed as being included in ‘Operación Puerto’, which involved blood doping at a Spanish clinic. Armstrong says in the documentary he respected him, because he was the reason he got up in the morning. In 2018, Ullrich was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
Marco Pantani won the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in 1998. However, he was given a compulsory welfare suspension when he was leading the 1999 Giro (something I’ll explain in part 3). He never really got over the accusations/presumption of doping, and died on his own at age of 34 in a hotel room on Valentine’s day 2004, owing to a cocaine overdose.
Armstrong is asked by the interviewer why he went to go and visit Ullrich after his hospitalisation. He starts to cry – something I think many of us could empathise with – it is horrible to see someone go through psychiatric illness, and feel helpless as to what you can do. However, it leads him to segue into what I feel is the most genuine part of the documentary, in that it’s the thing I think he believes the most – double standards.
His view is clearly that everyone else was doing the same thing as him, and it’s just what you had to do to compete. But he perceives that people are treated differently. The way he explains it, is how come Germany reveres Rick Zabel, but demonises Jan Ullrich? How come people will buy cycling merchandise with George Hincappie’s name on it (one of Armstrong’s closest friends), but not his merchandise? For me, controversially, he also discusses how Ivan Basso is welcomed to races, but Pantani is dead, insinuating that the sport and the media killed him.
I don’t doubt the sincerity at being upset about the fates of Ullrich and Pantani, but for me, there are two problems with this. Firstly, Armstrong can’t be equated with the others. They weren’t appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman, dating Sheryl Crow and Kate Hudson, whilst bullying people, denying all allegations, and suing newspapers in defamation, knowing they were telling the truth. There may be a point there about media reporting, but the spotlight on the sport is more intense because of your actions.
Secondly, I felt uncomfortable about Armstrong mentioning Pantani. I remembered that they had a duel up to the summit of Mont Ventoux in the 2000 Tour, but that there was fall out from it. After watching part 2 of the Armstrong documentary, I went back to re-watch ‘Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist’. That documentary (which is available on YouTube, but I won’t link to it, is far more worth watching, even knowing how sad the outcome is) features interviews with Pantani’s mother, and covers that fall out in a bit more detail. Armstrong comes across really poorly, and is incredibly disrespectful. It’s a reminder of the more negative aspects of his character. It may be that now he realises that disrespect, but there was an animosity there.
An Alternative View – Armstrong and Cancer Charity Work
Part 1 of the documentary is far more focused on Armstrong’s cancer diagnosis, and the Livestrong foundation. We hear a little bit in part 2 about his reaction to being removed from the board of Livestrong (spoiler – he didn’t take it well).
I would struggle to think of a more high-profile cancer survivor. For millions of people, he has acted as a source of inspiration when they were at their lowest point and needed a boost. He has raised millions for cancer research and awareness. One example that we get in the documentary is from a woman who works with Livestrong. She explains that she was facing the prospect of undergoing chemotherapy, and saw Armstrong on the cover of a magazine with his son. This raised her awareness of possible fertility complications post-chemotherapy, and so she elected to have eggs frozen, and has been able to start a family. It can’t be denied that is a real impact that he has had on someone’s life. The problem, as highlighted by my sister, is that it doesn’t reflect particularly well on the doctor.
In part 1 of the documentary, we see Armstrong collecting a lifetime achievement award for his cancer awareness work. Again, I’m not denying that he’s had a positive impact there, and I don’t doubt his sincerity and commitment to cancer awareness.
The problem that I will always have with Armstrong, I think, is my introduction to him. I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where me and my immediate family have not had to undergo chemotherapy/cancer treatment. So my route in isn’t “here’s the guy who motivated me to carry on and make a recovery”. Instead, my route is that he was a sporting icon, who in hindsight was a liar, a cheat and a bully. That means to me, he’s a bad person who has done some good things. Equally, though, I can see why someone would view him as a good person who has done some bad things.
Either way, if you already have seen the countless other interviews and documentaries, there’s really not a lot here that’s new. If you are less familiar with the story, it covers it pretty well. I’ve still got unanswered questions, but I really hope that this is the last time we have to go through revisiting this. I want to enjoy watching sport again and not be cynical about someone beating Usain Bolt’s 100 metre world record, or someone breaking a tennis serve speed record.