Lance Armstrong was once a darling of the sporting community. The professional road-racing cyclist was a bona fide American legend: the man who’d recovered from cancer to conquer the world in one of the toughest endurance sports. But then everything changed. And in a 2020 ESPN documentary, he opened up about the event which saw him chastised from his profession and the world at large.
Many of us will of course be familiar with Armstrong’s story. The Texan established himself as a sporting icon after becoming the first man to win the legendary Tour de France seven consecutive times between 1999 and 2005.
Armstrong was on top of the world when he retired from professional cycling in 2005. And then came the spectacular fall from grace. Years of doping allegations were eventually proven true, and Armstrong admitted his guilt in a notorious interview with Oprah Winfrey. Josh Levs wrote for CNN in 2012, “The epic downfall of cycling’s star – once an idolized icon of millions around the globe – stands out in the history of professional sports.”
We will find out how Armstrong wound up taking performance-enhancing drugs a little later, but first let’s learn a bit more about the man himself. He began life in Texas in 1971 and was always an incredibly driven individual. As a teen he excelled at both swimming and triathlons before turning his attention solely to cycling. Armstrong’s early years on first the amateur and then the professional cycling circuit were marked by notable successes – marking him out as a star for the future.
But one of the defining moments in Armstrong’s life occurred in 1996 when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Doctors also later found tumors in his brain, and the cyclist began chemotherapy – suspending his cycling career for two years. The French company Cofidis canceled the sportsman’s contract, and his life was in serious danger. But Armstrong came through the experience, and before long he was back on his bike.
Armstrong soon began seeing some stunning successes on the road. His first serious taste of glory came in the Tour de France in 1999 – just three years after his diagnosis and treatment for cancer. It was a sporting success that catapulted Armstrong to greatness and saw him eventually become an icon to millions. His success as a cancer survivor was also inspirational, and the rider contributed much to patients though the Livestrong Foundation that he helped set up.
The glory came thick and fast for Armstrong after that, and he embarked on his remarkable run of seven straight Tour de France victories. His famous yellow jersey became synonymous with the man, who firmly established himself as a global sporting superstar and cultural persona. Armstrong’s face adorned magazines and his name was recognized around the world.
Armstrong also benefited from his success with some very lucrative endorsement deals from the likes of Nike, Trek and Oakley. And the cyclist’s personal life reflected his VIP status; he dated a slew of stars and boasted former U.S. President George W. Bush as a personal friend.
Yet the whiff of controversy never truly went away. Armstrong enjoyed phenomenal success and was firmly established as a global sporting role-model. But rumors and whispers persisted that not all was as it seemed. The world of cycling was slowly being uncovered as one in which cheating in the form of doping and highly organized cover-ups were widespread.
Armstrong vehemently denied any wrongdoing – a pretence that he maintained for some time. And the star addressed his doubters while on the podium after his final Tour de France win in 2005. He said, “I’ll say to those who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the sceptics, I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry you can’t dream big and I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.”
But the whispers eventually reached a crescendo. And in an unforgettable interview with Oprah Winfrey in January 2013, Armstrong finally admitted what most of the rest of the world already suspected was true. He came clean about having used performance-enhancing drugs to win his seven tours. Indeed, it was arguably one of the most compelling admissions in sporting history.
“I view this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times,” Armstrong told Winfrey. He was then asked by the presenter whether it would have been possible to win the Tour de France seven times without the drugs. Armstrong admitted it would not have been, adding, “I didn’t invent the culture and I didn’t try to stop the culture… and the sport is now paying the price… and I’m sorry for that.”
“I didn’t have access to anything else that nobody else did,” Armstrong told Winfrey. The Texan also stated that he became entangled in the fairytale story that was his recovery from cancer. He said in the second person, “You [Armstrong] won the disease… it was this mythic perfect [narrative]. And it just wasn’t true.”
For some, Armstrong’s attacks on those who doubted him were worse than the organized cheating. Winfrey asked the former cycling star whether he was a bully, and Armstrong responded, “Yeah, yeah, I was a bully.”
Armstrong went on to describe his actions in a surprisingly frank way. He said, “[I was a bully in] the sense I tried to control the narrative and if I didn’t like what someone said… I tried to control that. [I] said, ‘That’s a lie, they’re liars.”
One victim of Armstrong’s attacks was Emma O’Reilly, a woman who had accused him of taking sports-enhancing drugs in 2004. The woman had worked on Armstrong’s team: the U.S. Postal Service. O’Reilly had been a team masseuse and soigneur for the cyclist and his team for four years from 1996.
Armstrong went on to apologize personally to O’Reilly in the Oprah interview, saying, “She’s one of these people I have to apologise to… who got bullied, who got run over.” But the staffer was not the only one, and Armstrong made a more general appeal for forgiveness. He added, “These were people who believed in me, who believed me, and they have every right to feel betrayed. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to earn back trust and apologize to people.”
After the scandal, Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and received a permanent ban from competitive cycling. He was also dropped by all of his sponsors. Furthermore, the U.S. government took legal action against the former professional athlete. The narrative that Armstrong had built for so long had finally come crashing down around him.
Armstrong soon became a pariah in the world of sport and his name became synonymous with the doping scandal which had led to his demise. And the professional road-racing industry itself has had a long and arduous journey disentangling from the mess of the Armstrong era.
Of course, Armstrong’s story has been one that has fascinated the general public at large – extending beyond cycling and sports fans. Here was a man at the top of his game who was undone by his own unethical actions.
Naturally, there have been a number of documentaries about Armstrong. There was 2013’s The Armstrong Lie, followed by Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story a year later. There was even a dramatization of the affair: 2015’s The Program. And five years after that ESPN produced a documentary detailing all of the events surrounding Armstrong’s rise and fall called Lance.
Much of the ground that the ESPN documentary covers is not new. Armstrong speaks about the cheating and the guilt, but he is then asked directly, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” And the former sportsman’s response is surprising.
“Everyone in the world needs to get this question,” Armstrong answers. Yet the American then softens and addresses what he feels were the worst of his sins among all those that have been uncovered by the media.
Armstrong then goes on to answer the question regarding the worst thing he has ever done. He says, “Probably the way I treated and spoke about Emma O’Reilly. That’s probably the worst.” He then adds, “[Filippo] Simeoni is right up there with [O’Reilly]. To stoop to that level, that’s not what a champion does.” But why does he lament his behavior towards these individuals more than any of his other misdemeanors?
Simeoni is an Italian former racing cyclist and was one of Armstrong’s competitors, while as we mentioned earlier, O’Reilly was a masseuse and personal assistant. And these two players feature strongly in the Armstrong saga. The latter is now able to admit that his past vilification of these particular individuals was totally unwarranted, and the former cyclist tears up when talking about it in the documentary.
For his part, Simeoni had a very public spat with Armstrong. The argument centered around Dr. Michele Ferrari, a controversial cycling team doctor and performance coach who was associated with both men. And in 2002 Simeoni testified that Ferrari had administered performance-enhancing substances.
Armstrong took exception to Simeoni’s actions against Ferrari and labeled his fellow cyclist a liar. And in a famous incident, the American chased the Italian down when the latter was in a breakaway group on the 18th stage of the 2004 Tour de France. After successfully catching his rival, Armstrong was seen making a “mouth zipping” gesture to the camera. According to Cycling News, Simeoni later said of Armstrong’s actions, “He wanted to teach me a lesson, he wanted me to experience a public humiliation.”
As we mentioned earlier, O’Reilly was on Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team for four years from 1996. She was a trusted colleague and therefore likely privy to some of the activities that took place behind the scenes. She later alleged those activities to a reporter who was intent on uncovering the truth about Armstrong.
O’Reilly became one of the most high-profile whistleblowers against Armstrong when she spoke out in 2004. O’Reilly claimed to the journalist David Walsh that she had collected doping products and even helped conceal needle marks on Armstrong’s arms with her make-up.
Armstrong had been fighting hard to clear his name when O’Reilly made the accusations against him. And the rider didn’t take kindly to what his ex-colleague was accusing him of. According to Fox Sports, the cyclist said at the time, “[She’s] P****d. P****d at me, p****d at [U.S. Postal Service team director] Johan [Bruyneel]… [She is] p****d at the team.”
“[O’Reilly] is afraid that we were going to out her… as a whore, or whatever, I don’t know,” Armstrong also commented in the same interview. Separately, he labeled her an alcoholic, in what appeared to be an attempt to discredit his former co-worker.
Armstrong later lamented his words against O’Reilly in his interview on the ESPN documentary. In the show, he says, “To call a woman a whore, it’s hard to be worse than that. I was an idiot and in full attack mode, that’s why I did it. I would have said anything.”
Armstrong elaborates a little more on his behavior in the documentary, saying, “I couldn’t be a different person off the bike. There was no getting in my way, and it worked really well for training and racing. Perfect for that. It just doesn’t work well with another human being who’s not in the race.”
But why did O’Reilly decide to bite the hand that had once fed her? Well, the former staffer answered that question when unveiling her book The Race to Truth: Blowing The Whistle on Lance Armstrong and Cycling’s Doping Culture in 2014. She said, “My motivation to speak out was always to clean up the sport. It wasn’t just about [Armstrong]. It was about something bigger than that. Because riders were dying, their lives were being wrecked. That system needed to change.”
In O’Reilly’s book, she outlines her experience working with the U.S. Postal Team and her actions as a whistleblower. And, remarkably, the publication features an interesting foreword penned by none other than her ex-colleague Lance Armstrong.
Armstrong’s foreword includes a passionate defense of his former colleague’s character. He writes, “I honestly don’t know if I’d have the courage and character to do what [O’Reilly] did. This won’t come as a shock to anyone but this woman is a much better person than I am or ever will be.”
O’Reilly is now a life coach, and she responded to Armstrong’s comments made in the ESPN documentary. She wrote on Twitter, “I’d like say it was nice of Lance Armstrong to once again apologize. But it’s done, it was done between him and I and Johan Bruyneel years ago. I’m really tired of all the haters. Can we just move on and show a bit of compassion to our fellow men?”
It’s fair to say not everyone will find it that easy to forgive Armstrong all of his misdemeanors. Ultimately, the ex-sportsman is a man who will always divide opinion. And – as the ESPN documentary shows – he is still unrepentant on a number of issues.
“It could be worse, I could be Floyd Landis, waking up a piece of s**t every day,” Armstrong says of his ex-teammate, with whom he fell out so spectacularly. The journalist then asks the ex-sportsman if that’s what he really thinks, and Armstrong responds, “That’s what I know, not what I think. I know.”
Armstrong also explains on the documentary that does not regret everything. Indeed, perhaps the most revealing part of the entire documentary is when the former cyclist reasserts a sentiment that he has been consistent with over the years. Armstrong bullishly states, “I’ve told you numerous times, I wouldn’t change a thing.”