Documentaries that chronicle the careers of relentless, unapologetic former superstar athletes didn’t end with the final episode of “The Last Dance.”
For the past two Sunday nights, ESPN followed the conclusion of the look back at Michael Jordan’s final championship run with “Lance,” a retrospective on the rise and fall of seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.
Broken down into two two-hour segments, “Lance” didn’t drag out as long as “The Last Dance.” It probably didn’t generate similar ratings, but in many ways, it was a superior production, thanks largely to Armstrong’s candor. If you missed it, you should stream it. (What else do you have to do at the moment?)
Jordan clearly insisted on creative control of his documentary, which accentuated his many accomplishments while minimizing issues such as his huge gambling losses and his behavior toward his Chicago Bulls teammates that verged on bullying. Few of those former teammates came away pleased with the result, and Jordan’s claim of food poisoning from a late-night pizza before his legendary “Flu Game” virtuoso performance rings a bit dubious.
Say this for Armstrong, who began his tainted run of Tour de France titles in 1999 (a year after Jordan retired from the Bulls): he is refreshingly honest. Seven years after finally admitting to Oprah Winfrey that he used the performance-enhancing drug EPO, he’s finally coming to grips with the financial, emotional and relationship ramifications of the actions that made him nearly as big a worldwide star as Jordan.
Armstrong insists several times that if he had a time machine, he wouldn’t change a thing. Then he utters the documentary’s signature phrase: “It’s complicated.”
That sentiment is echoed by at least a dozen former teammates and rivals, plus journalists who covered his logic-defying ascent from Stage 4 cancer survivor to world’s fastest cyclist. Unlike the non-Jordan voices in “The Last Dance,” they can be critical of the protagonist while acknowledging his achievements. (Let’s be clear: Jordan was never accused of anything other than having a gambling addiction or being an often petty, prickly human being.)
What makes Armstrong’s story so convoluted?
First, cycling was a dirty sport long before he got involved and well after he retired. Floyd Landis, a former teammate who blew the whistle on Armstrong, was stripped of his 2006 Tour title for doping.
While the “everyone is doing it” excuse falls on the deaf ears of any parent, most observers (including this one) are less likely to slam Armstrong for participating in his sport’s widespread cheating regimen than for the aggressive way he covered it up to protect his brand.
He filed lawsuits and questioned the character of anyone who dared suggest that his ascent from death’s door to cycling legend without chemical help was too good to be true. Betsy Andreu, whose husband Frankie was Armstrong’s teammate, testified in 2005 that she heard him admit to doping, and she still harbors deep resentment after he called her a “crazy bitch.”
And while EPO may not have the same long-term negative health effects as the anabolic steroids Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez used to chase baseball’s home run records, it can lead to increased risk of heart attacks and blood clots in the lungs.
As “Lance” points out, we also must weigh the societal good Armstrong did against his cheating. His foundation raised cancer awareness and hundreds of millions of dollars towards research, helping erase the disease’s stigma. Nike’s “Live Strong” bracelets were fashion and social statements around the turn of the new millennium, and Armstrong refused to let camera crews document the time he spent alone with cancer victims.
None of that excuses Armstrong’s cheating, but it does add context to a story that Shakespeare might envy (if cycling had been around in Elizabethan times).
Armstrong is now something of a pariah, living relatively quietly in Aspen, Colo. with his fiancee and children. Most people have extreme opinions about him. Yours might not change if you watch the documentary, but you may understand him a bit better.