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ESPN’s ‘Lance’ is Lance Armstrong’s Latest Failed Rehabilitation Effort

“Nobody dopes and is honest,” Lance Armstrong says in the new ESPN documentary. “The only way you can dope and be honest is if nobody asks you, which is not realistic.” 

That’s one of the many bizarre things said by Armstrong in Lance. Then again, it’s hard to imagine a lengthy documentary about the disgraced cyclist’s story that doesn’t include that sort of strange confession. 

If Michael Jordan’s career had concluded, and then a while later it had come out that he had blatantly cheated to win all six of his championships, then The Last Dance would have looked something like Lance, the two-part, four-hour 30 for 30 documentary that concluded on ESPN Sunday night. 

The documentary tells the well-trodden story of how Armstrong emerged in the mid-1990s as a young upstart, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, recovered, won the Tour de France seven times, raised millions of dollars for cancer research and then, after years of denials, finally admitted that he had been doping all along. 

After that, he was disgraced, sued, and became something of a permanent pariah. Except for documentarians. They can’t seem to get enough of the guy. 

After a couple of pre-disgrace docs about Armstrong’s rise and Tour de France run, Alex Gibney made 2013’s The Armstrong Lie, which began as a story about Armstrong’s post-retirement cycling comeback, but ended up chronicling his downfall. This one is much longer and yes, more self-serving- even more so than The Last Dance was. There’s also the natural question of why we should believe anything Armstrong has to say. 

Directed by Marina Zenovich, the film debuted at Sundance in January. Overall, it’s an intriguing look at how an erstwhile hero engaged on a decade-long journey of dishonesty. But there’s not a lot here that’s new, especially if you’ve seen the Gibney film or Armstrong’s famous confessional interview with Oprah Winfrey.

In addition to the docs, Armstrong had a couple of memorable cameos, in HBO’s hilarious Tour de Pharmacy, and in Dodgeball, which was probably the funniest moment in the movie: 

My view on Armstrong has always been that I’m not that morally outraged by the doping. Like the steroid-using baseball players in the ’90s, he doped at a time when everyone in his sport was doing it, and he still managed to beat all the other dopers over and over again,  which is itself no small achievement. 

What I always found much more worthy of scorn was that Armstrong not only lied, but that he spent years defaming, suing and otherwise seeking to destroy anyone who accused him of cheating, when in fact those people were right all along. He trashed the media, his rivals, and even some former teammates-turned-foes.  

Lance’s four-hour running time could have easily been cut to two. We don’t need to learn again about Armstrong’s childhood, cancer battle, or love affairs with famous women, and the segment about his LiveStrong work comes across like an infomercial. 

I did enjoy Armstrong and Greg LeMond’s decades of palpable hatred for one another, which is up there with Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas’ chippiness in The Last Dance. Armstrong also made an enemy of Floyd Landis, his teammate-turned-enemy who, burly and bearded, looks like a completely different person today. 

Armstrong isn’t the most loathsome figure to be the subject of a film by this particular documentarian;  Zenovich also directed Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, an inexplicably praised documentary which somehow convinced a lot of smart people that they’re supposed to feel bad for a guy who raped an underaged girl. 

What Armstrong did wasn’t nearly as bad, of course. But the film is still an exercise in whining from a guy who brought just about all of his problems upon himself. While there are morsels of intriguing stuff in Lance, it’s ultimately one Lance Armstrong documentary too many. 

Written By

Simon is a sometimes writer and podcaster living in Toronto.

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