In the first two and a half minutes of the new ESPN film about his life, Lance Armstrong tells a story that includes 13 F-bombs, two other curse words and four obscene hand gestures.
And then he really gets going.
► He talks about his teenage years, when he used a forged birth certificate to circumvent the minimum age requirements to enter triathlons.
“Forge the birth certificate, compete illegally and beat everybody,” he said of his formula.
► He talks about his “10,000 lies” – not in terms of regret, but as a best practice to protect his empire and conceal his doping in cycling.
“Nobody dopes and is honest,” he said. “You’re not. The only way you can dope and be honest is if nobody ever asks you, which is not realistic. The second somebody asks you, you lie. It might be one lie because you answer it once. Or in my case it might be 10,000 lies because you answer it 10,000 times.”
Lance Armstrong’s rise and fall as a sports icon is explored in a two-part documentary to be broadcast on ESPN. (Photo: Elizabeth Kreutz, ESPN)
► He also talks about grudges. He still has them, particularly against his former cycling teammate turned legal nemesis.
“Could be worse,” he said. “I could be Floyd Landis … waking up a piece of (expletive) every day.”
OK, so why is ESPN giving this guy another big stage – this time airing a two-part prime-time film about him this Sunday and next?
“He’s utterly fascinating, and he’s likeable, and he’s light on his feet, and he’s funny,” film director Marina Zenovich told USA TODAY. “But he also did horrible things to people, so it’s kind of like you’re trying to understand someone. It’s like a perfect documentary subject. For me to be able to have the access to him to try to kind of uncover all of this was like a dream job.”
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The broad outline of the narrative is now infamous. He’s that kid from Texas who became an American superhero, having survived a near-death battle with cancer to win the Tour de France seven straight times from 1999 to 2005. But he’s also an American villain, disgraced and exposed as a cheater, liar and bully – aided and abetted by performance-enhancing drugs and friends in high places.
Each of those separate storylines qualified as compelling television in previous decades. ESPN now reels it all in with part one (the rise) and part two (the fall) through the wider lens of time, more so than other books and films that have documented Armstrong’s saga, one of the biggest sports stories of the 21st century.
In this case, the film does so mostly in Armstrong’s own words, past and present. Armstrong, now 48, dominates the show and is given so much time to explain himself by director Zenovich that he reveals himself in ways large and small, from his lack of skill in the kitchen at home to his view of himself as a martyr-like figure at the end.
But his answers and explanations aren’t exactly redeeming. Zenovich said he had no editorial control over the film and apparently was not pleased with it after viewing it in December.
A version of the film that is edited for language also will air simultaneously on ESPN2, in case any parents want their children to learn from Armstrong about how to rationalize rampant dishonesty and deceit but don’t want them to hear the profanity.
“This film is not just a re-hashing what we know about what happened, but an exploration of the who, the how, the why, expertly composed by an esteemed storyteller,” said Libby Geist, vice president and executive producer for ESPN Films and Original Content.
After watching it, viewers still likely will reach different and nuanced conclusions about him, which is another reason this character study of a film could become fodder for college psychology courses. The film also details his heroic stature among cancer survivors and his work at Livestrong, the charity he built to help them before his ouster from it amid scandal.
“Another thing that was surprising was to see how different people reacted to him in different ways,” Zenovich said.
Some people hate him. Some have stuck with him. Some still can’t make up their minds.
“Thirty years of knowing a person, you either love him or hate him,” former Armstrong teammate Bobby Julich said in the film. “I still haven’t decided where I stand after all that.”
Part one airs at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday, followed by part two at the same time on May 31.
Follow Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: email@example.com
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