SALT LAKE CITY — If you like a little entertainment served up with your pandemic, you probably enjoyed the Michael Jordan “Last Dance” documentary, and now there’s another sports documentary you can view safely from your COVID-19-free family room. ESPN has been airing a two-part “30 for 30” series on Lance Armstrong.
Remember him? He’s back, if only for a curtain call, and then he’ll go back to whatever it was he was doing.
At one point in “Lance,” Armstrong is asked if he is still relevant. His answer: Yes. Correct answer: Read the next two sentences. Pandemic or not, only 857,000 people viewed Part 1 of “Armstrong,” according to Sports Media Watch. The premiere of “Last Dance” had an audience of 6.1 million.
When he left the sport — or rather when he was shown the door — Armstrong also left the sport in irrelevance, at least on the American side of the ocean. The USA’s interest in cycling has come and gone, rising with Armstrong’s unprecedented seven straight victories in the Tour de France and falling with his disgraced exit. No American cyclist has risen to replace Armstrong and attract American fans to the sport, but maybe it wouldn’t matter after the way Armstrong left things.
Armstrong of course is known as much for his drug cheating and lying as he is for his victories (his other sin was making his mea culpa to Oprah). As you’re watching “Lance,” you’ll find yourself hoping that he’ll give you something — anything! — that will make him a more sympathetic character. It doesn’t happen.
Armstrong tries very hard to come off as contrite and sorry, but he just can’t quite pull it off. He admits he did all manner of drugs, but ... He’s sorry he destroyed some people along the way, but …. He has regrets, but … The lasting impression of Armstrong is a visual of him throwing his hands up after each statement, as if to say, “Is that fair? Does anyone else get it besides me.”
Armstrong states, as he often has, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
He even volunteers that he still can’t forgive some of the people he stomped on along the way, namely Floyd Landis, who lost his Tour de France victory after he tested positive for PEDs. When he came clean, he took Armstrong down with him.
If this is a man bent on repairing his image — he once said this would be his mission — he is going about it all wrong.
As Daily Beast writer Nick Schager describes it so well, “Armstrong continues to exude an air of righteous indignation, especially toward a cycling (and media) world that … treated him more harshly than it did other wrongdoers. For all his mistakes and betrayals, he’s outed in ‘Lance’ as an individual who still sees himself as a victim.”
Let’s give Armstrong this much. He’s the greatest cyclist ever, period. What he pulled off in the Tour de France — the seven consecutive victories from 1999-2005 — was superhuman. Yes, he was taking performance enhancing drugs, but so were his rivals. He beat all comers on an even playing field. He was the Michael Jordan of cycling, demanding, willful, relentless, determined, focused and bullying.
Tour de France winners tend to be riders who are good at everything but not great at any one event. Then there’s Armstrong. He was a superior performer in the sprint time trials, the crit, the climbs and long distances. He was also a superior cheater, one step ahead of everybody. If he hadn’t attempted a comeback, he likely would have gotten away with it all.
As noted earlier, when Armstrong was finally outed he was treated more harshly than the many other cyclists who had done the same thing. It wasn’t just that Armstrong cheated and lied and won for all those years, bringing tremendous attention and then embarrassment to his sport; It was the way he went about it.
He was mean and ruthless. He ruined people. He didn’t care what he did to rivals or officials or even the wives of rivals. He trashed them. He sued them. He was Sherman marching the South, scorching the earth behind him. Armstrong reportedly even boasted about his power to destroy people. It got ugly. He once referred to a long-time personal assistant and masseuse as a “whore” and “alcoholic” because she spoke out about his drug use — something Armstrong calls his biggest regret. Anybody who spoke out against him, he tried (and succeeded), in getting them fired or banished.
He stared into the cameras a hundred times and told us emphatically and angrily he was clean.
And now he’s trying to undo the damage and repair his image. It’s a role he’s not cut out for.