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Lance Armstrong – What do you really know?

Lance Armstrong is a villainous cheater. Right? No. Not exactly. Thats the extent of most of our knowledge on the subject. So when the notification popped up on my phone to check out the new 30 for 30: ‘Lance’ from ESPN, i was intrigued. Of course the first thing i did was tell my dad about it because pops is a very keen cyclist. Every Sunday he’s up and out on his bike, gone for hours. So not only was this a topic i didn’t know much about, but a good chance for some father son time.

It’s a two part documentary and fresh off of finishing the second part, about 15 minutes ago, i wanted to get my thoughts penned down. I know how the narrative goes and correct me if i’m wrong but to the majority of sports fans, we don’t know all that much background on the whole deal. Myself included in that.

Lance won 7 Tour de France titles before having them stripped – Image Credit BBC

Now the first thing i noticed while glued to this two parter, was Lance Armstrongs mindset. Something that is most definitely common amongst very few individuals. Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong. Having recently been completely captivated by the MJ documentary ‘The Last Dance’, the thought was fresh in my mind that Michael Jordan is not like most other humans, and by most i mean 99.9%. He thinks differently. To the point of making things up to give himself an aggressive edge against an opponent, or remembering that a players second cousin twice removed said he was overrated thirty nine years ago and so feels the need to drop 50 points on said players head to prove a point. He did everything he could to compete, and beat, everybody who stood in his way, and achieved unbelievable highs. Lance Armstrong is built the same, he has the same motivation. He and his team in one corner and f*ck whoever turns up on the opposite side.

Lance wanted to win, at everything. From the point of stealing the headlines as a 15 year old kid competing in his first triathlon against grown men, all the way to the Tour de France and riding himself into Paris for the win, 7 times.

Before sitting down to watch this 30 for 30, i wouldn’t blame anybody for having the perception that Lance Armstrong took performance enhancing drugs or PEDs and single handedly destroyed the reputation of cycling. Which couldn’t be further from the truth. What i learned from this is that the issue of ‘doping’ was so deeply rooted within the sport that if you didn’t do it, you’d likely find yourself on a bus home. There are guys interviewed in this documentary stating that they were faced with an ultimatum, take the PED’s or go home. As a young man with the aspiration of a career in cycling and not knowing where you would turn without it, what would you have done? Especially as your team mates, and everybody around you was doing it too. It was more a case of taking the PED’s to keep up, rather than taking them to gain an edge.

Teams were getting thrown out of the Tour for doping. Lance’s team mates on the US Postal team were found guilty of doping. George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Tyler Hamilton, Frankie Andreu, among others. Lance’s competitors were found guilty of doping. Jan Ullrich, the man who came closest to taking Lance down, and a good friend of his, a man he respected, also a part of the doping scandal. Other competitors riding behind Lance, doping. And the man who ultimately stepped up to take Lance down, Floyd Landis, who won the Tour de France the year after Lance retired, before being stripped of his title for yes, you guessed it, doping.

Lance Armstrong US Postal – Image Credit The Telegraph

The issue ran deep, and for a long time, and if you go and google ‘Cyclists doping’, and look at the wikipedia links, noting the known cases, you’ll see just how much of an issue this was in the 90’s and 2000’s, when Lance was at his prime, but also at large in the 80’s and in the post Lance era, 2006 onwards.

Yes, Lance Armstrong broke the rules, took PED’s and went on to win 7 Tour de Frances, a feat that no man had ever accomplished before, or after him. He won those Tour de Frances against other cyclists albeit not all of them, who were doing the same thing, in what came across as a very corrupt system, for a very long period of time. So did Lance Armstrong really have an advantage? Or was it still a level playing field, just on the wrong side of the legalities? Could he have said no, yes of course he could. Refuse the PED’s? Of course he could. But i guess when you look around at a system that is flawed, where many of the other athletes in your sport are actively doing the same thing, the lines become blurred.

The difficult thing for Lance Armstrong, is that because of the incredible return to glory from what was basically his death bed, riddled with cancer, he shot to unholy amounts of fame. It was a success story like no other. He was respected worldwide, and everybody knew, who Lance Armstrong was. He achieved incredible things after overcoming deadly cancer all over his body, of which his chances of doing were so low. Almost impossible. And so creating “Livestrong’ and going on to help millions of people, becoming the hero for cancer patients and survivors, and their families, telling his story all over the world, things spiralled out of control pretty quickly. A level of fame no cyclist would ever imagine. There certainly hasn’t been another one like it. From the highest point, he fell the furthest. Nobody references George Hincapie, or Floyd Landis, in fact unless you’re a keen Tour de France viewer and cyclist, it’s likely you don’t even know who those guys are. But they were all doing it too.

I get it, it’s a bad look that he revels in the glory and reaps the benefits of having such great success while cheating. But i really feel like it would be different if he was alone in that. There was a clear problem within the sport, and Lance was just another athlete wrapped up in that, his success just means everybody knows about him, and when you’re at the top of the mountain, it’s a lot further to fall.

Honestly? I feel bad for him. He takes the fall for a much deeper routed issue, and he still beat everybody, consistently. There were guys doping behind him. He still won. Sued left right and centre, stripped of endorsements, and his titles, casted out as the villain for what is a problem way bigger than him. Trying to cover their backs for the sport by shaming him. It’s a shame that we’ll never know if he could have done it without the PED’s, and that will be one of life’s many mysteries. But there are things you can’t take away from Lance. He had that Michael Jordan level of competitiveness. He did things other athletes in his sport were not capable of. Go and watch the highlight from Stage 9 of the 2003 tour.

He gets very emotional at one point towards the end of the documentary when talking about Jan Ullrich, a German rider who was right behind Lance for multiple years, and he says he’s the only rival he really respected, and liked. He explains that Jan Ullrich was destroyed by the organisations surrounding cycling and the media allowed it to happen. ‘The f*cking sport did it to him, and the media let em do it’. He is referencing to the fact that Ullrich has spent a lot of time in rehab and has faced problems with alcohol, drugs and drink driving. Jan Ullrich refused to return Olympic medals from the 2000 games, taking gold in the mens road race, and silver in the time trial after being accused of doping and said this, which perfectly sums up the whole situation: “Almost everyone at the time was taking performance-enhancing substances. I didn’t take anything that was not taken by the others. It would only have been cheating for me if I had gotten an advantage which was not the case. I just wanted to ensure I had an equal opportunity.”

Ullrich and Armstrong. Image Credit to CyclingToday

Lance was built differently and doping or not i believe is still the best athlete that cycling has seen. He had the hunger that not many carry for success. You definitely can’t take away from him the time he spent with kids with cancer, by their sides in hospital beds. The commitment he made to providing hope to people by sharing his story. All the hard work that went into Livestrong, which he never wanted to profit from and is now not allowed to be a part of. Which is a shame and you can tell he’s disappointed with that. There are thousands of cancer survivors who are better off because of Livestrong, and people who got through their illness with the support of Lance and his organisation.

He’s a very strong character, and has faced more adversity than any other riders accused of doping, because of his stature. Losing sponsorships with Nike, Giro etc. Being sued left right and centre. Having former team mates turn on him, the media recreate him as a villain, the sport of cycling that once used his story to shoot itself into the stratosphere in terms of popularity, feed him to the wolves while some of his team mates got off very lightly, and still get tv appearances and sponsorships, while he’s dragged through the mud. I respect the way he’s dealt with the fall out. I really do.

Lance Armstrong will always be the villain. What he did was wrong yes, but once you learn a lot more about it, his actions don’t seem anywhere near as obscene. I’d like to play a very small part in changing the view that he cheated and cheated alone to make it to the top. There is so much more to the story. And Lance Armstrong still has my respect.

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