Editor's Note: Here's a review of ESPN's documentary on Lance Armstrong, the two-part 30 for 30 series, "Lance Armstrong – It's Complicated," which initially aired in May 2020 and is now available on Netflix Canada. This review is from guest contributor, Larry Greenfield.
The 2-Part "30 for 30" ESPN documentary on Lance Armstrong presented a dramatic sports story about a cocky cyclist in a dangerous sport that remains of limited popular appeal to most American sports fans.
However, there are intriguing ethical questions highlighted that merit sincere consideration.
Lance grew up in the Dallas suburb of Plano, Texas. He had a very young single mom who married a good man who adopted him.
His adoptive father regrets that while he drove Lance with intense discipline, he rarely expressed love to his adopted son.
Lance played all the sports as a kid and wasn't that great, so he took up swimming and started at the bottom, never quitting, until he became quite good.
At 15, he tried Triathlons, forging signatures as he was too young to compete. He came out of nowhere to shock his much more advanced competitors and realized he had a big talent and a big path ahead.
That led to his intense training and quick rise as a competitive cyclist. VERY competitive.
Lance started doping at age 21, along with teammates, in a sports culture where competitors did not want to fall behind. You doped or dropped out.
Except please note that the low - octane cortisone shots were not illegal. The sport had not banned many substances used to help the racers overcome widely prevalent injuries.
I can argue that remedies that help your body heal should be legalized, and I have very mixed feelings about the blanket banning of all performance enhancing drugs. As sports fans, do we really not want home run hitters to beef up and break records? Do we not want cyclists battling through grueling days of competition to heal quicker?
This makes for some good arguments over a beer at a sports bar, and I'm buying….
Lance quickly won the World Championship and began to spend a lot of time in Europe as part of the U.S. Motorola team, with mixed early results against older and more experienced competitors.
Soon EPO showed up, pushed by manufacturers and doctors, and racers started dramatically improving their results. Lance felt he was falling behind those using the advanced drugs, which were illegal.
Lance and his teammates joined most in the sport in "breaking the rules" to get pills, injections and transfusions. Everyone knew exactly what they were taking, including growth hormones, under mostly private and unpublicized doctor's care.
And everyone kept the biggest secret in sports, for years.
Unfortunately, Lance was then diagnosed with advanced Stage 4 testicular cancer and immediately underwent life saving surgery followed by chemotherapy treatments.
Lance was very, very sick. More surgery on his brain, more chemo for his lungs. Another Intense battle won with the help of drugs.
Soon, the "Race for the Roses" of the Lance Armstrong Foundation in Austin, Texas launched one of the more successful cancer awareness and survivorship charities of all time.
Livestrong was founded on the principle that "unity is strength, knowledge is power, and attitude is everything."
Nike and the Foundation sold 80 million yellow wristbands. Lance never took a penny. Later, Nike dropped Lance like a hot potato.
Healthy again, Lance faced resistance from racing teams who did not want to give him a chance.
Finally, the U.S. Postal Service stepped forward to offer Lance a home and sponsorship. He married a great lady and started a family.
Lance returned to training and competition and struggled but eventually became the dominant figure in the history of his sport, with a stunning run of 7 annual victories in a row against 180+ riders in the toughest race in the world, the Tour de France. It became the Tour de Lance.
A champion at the level of the greatest of all time. The GOAT.
Except the racers were "doping," and eventually, the authorities decided to seek their own fame and glory, and started investigating everyone.
So an American survivor of cancer against huge odds, who raised millions of dollars and hopes in the battle against cancer worldwide, came to dominate European cycling and become an American hero.
Divorced, retired, came back. You know, the usual drama.
And then Floyd Landis, who had been banned and taken the bullet for all, but was unfortunately shunned upon his return, went public.
Former U.S. cycling champion Greg LeMond, who opposed doping, became a critic of Lance, of the racing authorities, and of all the doctors who pushed performance enhancing drugs.
Eventually came the revelations and admittance by the cycling world that they had all been part of a massive scheme.
And just like that, it was Lance’s turn to become the liar and a scandalized cheater. Because banned substances, tests, federal investigations, court cases, and ultimately the fall.
On Oprah, the big confession.
Lance lost his medals, and sponsors. He was out as the head of his own foundation. He was sued and paid millions in damages to many. Income dropped and friends disappeared and lots of haters hated.
He settled his $100 MM Federal Lawsuit for $5 MM, probably feeling like he pulled off yet another remarkable victory, ready to survive again and even come back into the public eye as a redeemed man.
Lance showed compassion for his German rival Jan Ullrich, his friend and competitor, who suffered from the swings of glory and trauma.
Lance came to question how society raises up and celebrates and then tears down and disgraces its heroes.
Many don’t care, many don’t like him, and many aren’t sure.
My judgment is far less harsh than one might expect.
I think Lance Armstrong is an American success story, a legend, and a man whose character flaws deserve criticism, but don’t deserve to overshadow one of the stunning personal athletic and humanity serving personalities of our times.
Did Lance not outrace his competition, year after year? Did he not overcome a devastating disease to do so?
Did Lance not help millions to fight cancer?
Lance Armstrong is a champion who has done more with his life than most. Yes, a flawed man. Rolled the dice and lost, big time. Was unkind to many. That’s all granted.
Cyclists used performance enhancing drugs. And then lied about it. Ok. Does that make them all evil?
Everyone happy that Olympians and baseball players are banned and shunned and disallowed into Halls of Fame?
Do the fans have to give back their cheers for the racers and all the players who used drugs? Were they not too part of the system?
Are we good people who do bad things, or bad people who achieve great things?
I hope Lance rides off into the sunset with that cocky smile on his face, wrapped in the American flag, in the winning circle.
May he, and we, all Live Strong, in this complicated world.
Here's the official trailer:
Larry Greenfield is a Fellow of The Claremont Institute who has morphed from innocent boyhood SoCal sports fan to cynical Las Vegas sports observer, without current games to bet on. Greenfield can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org