Following Michael Jordan and the phenomenal success of “The Last Dance” is a bit like following Beyoncé onstage. But if there’s any figure that could go toe-to-toe with Jordan in both accomplishments and ego, it’s Lance Armstrong.
ESPN’s next 30 for 30, “LANCE,” premieres this Sunday night, with Part 2 airing next Sunday. Directed by Marina Zenovich, the two-time Emmy award winner who also directed the Duke lacrosse-focused 30 for 30 doc “Fantastic Lies,” it’s as close as we’re going to get to figuring out the mentality behind one of sports’ greatest falls from grace.
“He’s an iconic sports figure,” Zenovich told Yahoo Sports. “He’s got an amazing rise and fall like no other athlete. I love to get inside someone and figure what makes them tick … He’s just an amazing character, good, bad and ugly.”
“LANCE” begins with an anecdote that sums up that ethos. Armstrong was a seven-time winner of the Tour de France, one of the world’s most celebrated athletes, before a widespread doping scandal brought it all crashing down. At ease in front of the camera —he was interviewed eight times over the course of more than a year — Armstrong begins by saying how surprised he was that no one had said “F--- you” to him after everything fell apart.
But one night, a crew at a bar tells Armstrong exactly what he was expecting to hear. “I was shocked and I was mad. I have to act. I’m me. I’m Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong doesn’t just let s--- like this happen.”
He wisely opts against going over and taking a swing at the first guy to call him out. Instead, he gives the bar his credit card and says to pick up the entire table’s tab, on one condition. The bar had to deliver this message:
“Guys, Lance took care of everything. And he sends his love.”
Generosity, sure … but with a smug, vindictive twist of the knife, just to remind you who’s in charge. That’s Lance Armstrong, and that’s the story this documentary tells.
Why Lance Armstrong? Why now? It’s a valid question, given the fact that we know the full arc of Armstrong’s story phenomenal athlete, worldwide icon, unrivaled champion, exposed doper, one-way friend and vengeful enemy. Plus, Armstrong is charming as hell; the first few minutes of the documentary include several people telling Zenovich on-camera that Armstrong will use this as a chance to rehabilitate his image.
“It was an elaborate fencing match,” Zenovich said. “He was trying to control what he told me, and I would push him further. I feel like I got him to expose himself in a way that he does to people who know him personally, but not to people who only know him from TV.”
Of note: unlike Jordan and “The Last Dance,” Armstrong had no editorial control over “LANCE.” Zenovich didn’t tell him who else she was interviewing, and she didn’t hand him an iPad to give him a chance to tee off on his critics. Like “The Last Dance,” however, “LANCE” saw its premiere moved up from this fall to this weekend to meet quarantine-induced demand.
Through interviews with family, friends and enemies, the documentary traces Lance’s life from his childhood in Texas through his astounding athletic prowess. His cancer diagnosis — advanced testicular cancer — hits like a kick to the gut. Armstrong had almost no hope of survival, according to doctors at the time, and yet he responded phenomenally well to chemotherapy and other treatments, including removal of a testicle and brain surgery.
Even surviving all of that trauma would be a success, but Armstrong used his recovery as yet another chance to compete, to beat the odds, to beat cancer and its hold on him. You can’t watch that section of the documentary and not come away with admiration for what Armstrong overcame.
“He’s quite likeable,” Zenovich allowed. “The haters would say ‘he charmed you, he snowed you.’ He’s just so charismatic, so light on his feet. If you spend time with Lance, if you take away the ugliness, what you realize is, ‘I’ve got to have more fun in my life.’ ”
Still, Armstrong’s victory over cancer is only part of his story. His return to cycling, and his subsequent championships, appeared to be the greatest comeback story sports had ever seen. David Letterman called him “a champion and a hero,” and Armstrong won worldwide acclaim for his courage, his strength, his story. It seemed too good to be true.
It was. After years of whispers, grumbles and accusations, the United States Anti-Doping Agency in 2012 charged that Armstrong was at the center of "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen." After an astounding array of lawsuits, countersuits, threats and allegations, Armstrong was stripped of his victories, including his seven Tour de France wins. He saw his foundation, reputation and life’s work reduced to ashes, and he was the one who’d lit the fire.
“He says, ‘I needed a nuclear meltdown and I got it,’ ” Zenovich said. “He wouldn’t be at the place he is right now, with his children and with himself, if he hadn’t gone through that. Whether people believe it or not, that’s his truth.”
The question Armstrong faces, and will always face, is whether he’s paid enough for his sins, both financially and morally. He ravaged reputations and ravaged an entire sport’s integrity … how much should he continue to pay for that? How much does he still want to?
“He knows the harm that he did, and in his way, he feels bad about it, but he has moved on,” Zenovich said. “The more someone wants something from him that he can’t give, the less he would try to give it to them. When he says, ‘I wouldn’t change a thing,’ I believe him.”
LANCE premieres on ESPN Sunday night at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN2, with Part 2 airing next Sunday at the same time.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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