Why are we still listening to Lance Armstrong?
Why do we keep handing him hearings?
Why does this deceitful man, who did all of these vile things, keep getting opportunities at redemption?
This time around, he got four hours of prime-time TV on ESPN’s signature 30 for 30 series, broken up into two Sunday nights. It played all the hits, of course. The cycling prodigy whose career seemed over when he was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer but who clung on. The sudden and meteoric ascent to the front of the peloton. The seven straight Tour de France titles. The superstardom. The LiveStrong Foundation. The yellow wristbands and the inspiration to all those cancer patients. The persistent drug suspicions. The fall. The confession. The disgrace.
But before all of that, just a few minutes in, Armstrong shows his cards and demonstrates that he hasn’t changed. “Some people just can’t chill the f--- out,” he says in his typically curse-inflected cadence. “They’re pissed still, and they will be pissed forever.”
He announces: “I’m not going to lie to you. I’m going to tell you my truth. My truth is not my version. My truth is the way I remember it.”
The man who lied and lied and lied wants us to know he’s telling the truth this time, but follows it with an immediate qualifier.
Lance Armstrong can’t take away the bad things he did
In “LANCE”, Armstrong is sometimes remorseful, sometimes introspective, but mostly defiant. He speaks about doping with disarming candor, almost in a callous way. He has regrets, and he’s honest about them. But more often than he concedes that he would have done some things differently, he undercuts himself by proclaiming that he would, in fact, do nothing differently. He plainly remains, in middle age, a truculent man. At that, one with a juvenile mind.
In a throwaway line, he boasts that he still dislikes his former rivals and thinks them weak for palling around now, a decade after they all stopped riding. Unprompted, he calls former teammate Floyd Landis — whose own Tour de France title was stripped as well — “a piece of s---.” Landis blew the whistle on Armstrong’s cheating. But the latter doesn’t see the irony in his hatred for Landis when he himself likely betrayed recently departed teammate Tyler Hamilton and turned him in for doping after Hamilton beat him at a race.
All of the bad things Armstrong did still happened. The seven vacated titles. Domineering a sport by taking advantage of its fragility after the doping scandal of 1998. Bullying anybody who questioned him. Undertaking scorched-earth campaigns against his accusers. Suing David Walsh and The Sunday Times for libel after Walsh dug up evidence that Armstrong was cheating and published it — even in heavily diluted form. Defrauding the American taxpayer by taking the U.S. Postal Service’s sponsorship money in spite of signing a contract that stated he wouldn’t take performance-enhancing drugs.
It all still happened.
“LANCE” documentary excuses Armstrong’s behavior
The documentary doesn’t gloss over the bad, exactly, but it does create a permission structure for Armstrong’s behavior.
We’re led through the unsettled childhood, the teenaged mom and the stepfather who would paddle him. Armstrong is allowed to marvel at the tenacity of his younger self, not quitting swimming even though he was five years behind his age group and eventually graduating to triathlons and then standalone bike races.
We spend a long stretch on the sport’s drug culture. At one point, it is asserted that you couldn’t even ride on the pro tour without doping and that there was an acceptance of cheating and a pressure to confirm or be left behind.
EPO, which stimulates the production of red blood cells, comes along and Armstrong pivots from being upset that other riders were doping — even though he himself was on other performance-enhancers — and begins working with the notorious and since-disgraced Italian drug doctor Michele Ferrari.
But the documentary neglects to point out that if everybody was doing it, Armstrong somehow was responsible for eight of the 13 identified positive tests taken during the 1999 Tour — the first of his seven straight titles — when a test was finally developed the following year.
And it undersold the way Armstrong lied through his teeth at the cameras year after year after year, pontificating and moralizing and chastising his many critics. It gives short shrift to how grotesquely he took advantage of the halo his victorious battle with cancer gave him.
On balance, the cancer-specific deceptions were probably offset by all the good Armstrong did through his foundation, raising money and awareness. Even if he became so toxic after his 2013 public confession to Oprah Winfrey that he was summarily ousted by LiveStrong.
Why does Lance Armstrong keep getting redemption chances?
Growing up in Belgium, there was a long while when I loved cycling intensely. The big road races, the one-day classics, the tours of France, Spain and Italy, I found them spellbinding. I rode my regular bike all around town, pretending to be in a race, part of the peloton, escaping the pack, setting up sprints to the finish line. I would be Miguel Induráin or Bjarne Riis or Jan Ullrich or Marco Pantani, whoever that year’s champion was. I pondered cycling strategy when I wasn’t on my bike. I studied races closely, for no other gain than my love for them.
And then I found out it was all a sham, when things came crumbling down in 1998 in a massive doping scandal. Armstrong restored my faith and that of many others. But it was a mirage. The sport’s greatest modern champion, Lance Armstrong, was the dirtiest of them all. I haven’t watched much cycling since.
These four hours won’t bring me back either.
Because we never arrive at the end of some narrative arc. There is no redemption, nothing to move Armstrong’s story forward. It’s just the same stuff, rehashed. Age may have made him more truthful — possibly — but there is no grand reckoning with the things he did. He sleeps well at night, he says firmly.
Which begs the question what the point of “LANCE” really was. It didn’t feel any different from all the other big interviews he’s done in recent years. He was allowed to muse about the relevance he thinks he has and about his divisiveness, suggesting that he genuinely believes he still has a sizable number of supporters.
Toward the end of the documentary, Armstrong goes on a rant about how unfair his treatment really was. And then he circles back to his audacious creed: “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
If nothing has changed, if he hasn’t changed, why should we pay any mind?
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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