Lance Armstrong is a dick.
That’s not news. The entire first part of the ESPN 30 for 30 series Lance aired Sunday night. It includes a veritable cornucopia of tales of Lance’s dickishness. The oldest story goes back to when he was 15 and trashed a scooter loaned to him by tri-athlete Rick Crawford, Lance’s unofficial chaperone to a triathlon in Bermuda. When confronted over his careless behavior with someone else’s property, Crawford says Lance (and his mother, Linda), both told him he had “no authority” over Armstrong.
At the beginning of Lance, Senior ESPN Writer Bonnie Ford, who covered Armstrong extensively during his cycling career, says she expects Armstrong to try to manipulate the program’s narrative. Right off the bat, there is evidence of this.
“When my life took the turn it took,” he says early on — note his use of the passive voice, suggesting he doesn’t really know where all this went wrong, and he sure as hell isn’t going to take any responsibility for it. Moments later, when discussing the first time someone yelled “Fuck You” at him — he says it took five years longer than he’d expected — Armstrong shrugs.
“Some people just can’t chill the fuck out. They’re pissed still, and they will be pissed forever.” Whatever Armstrong did, he’s over it, and he’s angry you’re still bringing it up.
For his part, Armstrong plays off his dickishness as “competitiveness” and “drive,” but he definitely comes off like the guy at a bar who will tell a woman she’s not hot enough to be talking to him. Armstrong also seems oblivious about how much (and how easily) he has lied throughout his career. He casually talks about his mother helping him forge his birth certificate so he could compete in triathlons at 15, a year below the age requirement. We see video of Armstrong, yellow-mid-1999 Tour de France, talking about testing positive for “a minute” amount of cortisone, due to a skin cream he claimed he was taking.
Turns out Armstrong tested positive for banned substances four times during his first Tour de France win. He was able to talk his way out of it.
Lance Armstrong sold America a bill of goods, and, judging from the ratings of Lance: Part 1, the country is in no mood to humor Armstrong’s attempts at image rehabilitation. According to Sports Media Watch, Lance averaged less than a million viewers, far fewer than The Last Dance, the series on Michael Jordan’s Bulls, which averaged 5.6 million viewers across 10 episodes.
Juliet Macur covered Armstrong’s career and subsequent downfall for The New York Times, eventually writing a book about him: “Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong.” Macur, like many of us, watched Lance with interest.
“A lot of people didn’t want to watch the show (Sunday) night. I read some people commenting, ‘I don’t want to watch it because he’s always a liar,’” she told Deadspin.
“The fact is, I think a lot of people maybe didn’t tune in because they were duped by him, and they think, ‘Why waste your time on somebody like this?’”
Macur talked to Armstrong for her book, even though he demanded she change the title.
“For me, I want to know more about how he duped millions of people. It makes him even more fascinating,” said Macur.“But I think that this film was done way too early to sit back and see what his real impact on history was. He was banned in 2012, so it really hasn’t been that many years in the grand scheme of things. I think it’s still too raw to be able to sit back and see can he redeem himself? I think it’s going to take a lot more time than just eight years.”
What Lance: Part 2 reveals about Armstrong’s history of lying, cheating, and bullying those around him remains to be seen, but if you tuned into Part 1 looking for a humbled, contrite Lance Armstrong, you were no doubt disappointed. The first installment featured instead a jovial and smirking Armstrong, chock full of stories about all those who had done him wrong, and a stream of characters who just seemed to be there because they hung out with Lance at some point.
Meanwhile, Lance glossed over (or skipped entirely) major characters in Armstrong’s life, like real estate investor J.T. Neal, who took care of Lance and became a father figure to him.
“Lance moved to Austin to be around other riders when he was really young, and J.T. took him under his wing,” Macur said. “(Neal) worked out (Lance’s) finances, he dealt with all the team stuff, helped him buy his first house, and basically was his parent for many years. So that’s what I was sad about in that story, because they sort of glossed over that, which I thought was the most interesting piece of information I had in the book, which was this guy, J.T. Neal.”
You can be forgiven for having watched Part 1 and having no idea who J.T. Neal is or where he fits into Armstrong’s story.
“You never hear Lance talking about him, because he just sort of disappeared, but he really helped Lance when his parents weren’t there. And his parents weren’t there. His mom was not there early on, and it got to the point where I think that Linda needed money for something and Lance refused to give it to her, and so he was upset, I think, at his parents for a long time, maybe just because of his upbringing. But they missed a lot of the sort of the psychological background I would’ve wanted to know.”
Lance also raises the question of whether Armstrong is lying to this day about the extent of his drug use and when it began. In Lance, Armstrong insists he never took EPO, a banned blood booster favored by cyclists, until the 1995 season. But in Cycle of Lies, Macur talked to those who said Armstrong was doping much sooner.
In pro cycling a “soigneur” is assigned to teams and individual cyclists to care for them. Among other duties, soigneurs give massages, advise riders about sleep strategies, and attend to riders’ nutritional needs. Soigneur John Hendershot, according to Macur, told her Armstrong did “all types” of banned performance enhancing drugs when he was very young. Hendershot told Macus he never gave Armstrong EPO, but he was aware the American was on it.
“When he found out Lance got cancer, (Hendershot) just dropped off the face of the earth and never had contact with anyone again,” says Macur, “Because he thought that, of course, he was pumping all these things into [Armstrong’s] veins and popping all these pills, and then to have to make the connection between somebody not treating their body the way they should and then getting cancer. . . He thought he had basically killed Lance Armstrong.”
Macur says Neal, who died in 2002, left 26 hours of audio tapes on his relationship with Armstrong, and was also aware of Armstrong using banned substances well before he admits to doing so.
“J.T. Neal, he really did like being around cyclists quite a bit, but he really did love Lance. He said it in his tapes and his family really loved Lance and took him in. And so [Neal] knew a lot about him, including a lot about the doping, which was way before the cancer.”
But when Macur asked Armstrong about Neal for her book, Armstrong replied “J.T. Neal? Forget about that. Don’t go chasing that.”
In an excerpt of Cycle of Lies published in the NYT, Macur wrote:
“Neal loved that the national team riders and American pro cyclists knew who he was. Some even called him for advice. In [George] Hincapie’s case: [he] was stopped by customs with a suitcase filled with EPO and other drugs, what should I do? Some of them, like Armstrong and Hincapie, were open with him about their drug use. Whether Neal was complicit in any of their doping is unclear. He said, though, that soigneurs in the United States had a different job from those in Europe, where an intimate knowledge of pharmaceuticals had long been required. Neal learned that from soigneurs who had worked overseas.”
Given the amount of evidence and witnesses to Armstrong’s cheating his way to seven Tour de France titles, it’s astonishing to watch Armstrong shrug and “everyone was doing it” his way through Lance. Because, of course, it wasn’t just that Armstrong was doing what everyone else was doing. It was that, when caught, he didn’t just deny what he had done, he was incandescent with rage at the very suggestion that he was a fraud. And he tried to destroy anyone who said otherwise. As of yet, no one in Lance has brought up Amstrong’s bullying of those around him. Instead, we see affable, incorrigible, party boy Lance, driving his boat around and talking about his first house, getting an award for his work in the cancer community, insisting there’s no law that says you have to wear a seatbelt in the back seat. It’s enough to leave viewers to wonder who, exactly, is setting the narrative.
Perhaps Lance: Part 2 will delve deeper into Armstrong’s lying, cheating, and bullying of those around him — those who, incidentally, were telling the truth about Armstrong all along. But if you expect to see a more contrite, sympathetic Armstong next Sunday night, Macur says not to hold your breath.
“I’ll watch again on Sunday,” she says. “But you know, I do feel bad for him. I feel like he’s trying to do the right thing, but he just can’t. He just doesn’t know how. And that’s the sad part for me, is that nobody, and this is my takeaway from talking to him, was that nobody, maybe except for J.T. Neal, really said, ‘Dude, you’re such a jerk.’ ‘You need to get a grip on yourself.’ ‘Your family is watching,’ or ‘You’re a dad now.’
“Maybe I’ll be surprised, but I think it would be good to see that he finally realizes what he’s done to some people. But some people just don’t have that capability. You know, it’s sort of learned when you’re young, how to be empathetic or how to realize what people think of you. And he just thinks that everybody always loved him.”
It’s clear watching Armstrong explain himself to the camera that he thinks he’s charming. He thinks he can “aw shucks” and smirk and talk his way out of trouble, as he always has. But that hasn’t been the way the world has seen Lance Armstrong for a long time. And that, says Macur, is part of the tragedy.
“He’s trying, you can see that he’s trying to do it, but he just doesn’t know how, he can’t. And just has no self-perception at all, like how people see him,” said Macur.
“There’s no self-realization in there at all.”