‘Attempting to cover this story in a single 103-minute movie is a near impossibility‘ – Cycling, drugs and The Program
In October 2012 USADA (United States Anti-Doping Authority) published a report known as the ‘Reasoned Decision‘. This report contained damning evidence, mostly by way of sworn testimony, against arguably the world’s most famous professional athlete at the time. That athlete was Lance Armstrong, and the report informed the world of what it referred to as ‘The most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.’
One thing the report served to do was to vindicate claims and accusations made by many of Armstrong’s guilt. One journalist in particular stood out from the crowd: David Walsh of the Sunday Times had his suspicions dating back to the first of Armstrong’s seven Tour de France victories in 1999.
Before discussing any detail of what would become Walsh’s relentless and obsessive pursuit of Armstrong, it is necessary to provide some context about the sport of cycling. Doping in cycling did not begin and end with Armstrong. Doping and cycling have become almost synonymous with each other, to the extent that its difficult to mention cycling without bringing doping into the conversation.
The Tour de France is the centerpiece of the cycling calendar. It was established by L’Auto newspaper in 1903 to help increase its circulation and it quickly found that the best way to do so was for the race to capture the attention of the public. The way to do this was to make the race so difficult that it would push its participants right to the limits of what is humanly possible, and beyond.
In the early days of professional cycling, doping was very primitive by comparison to the regimes that exist today. In the early days riders would use alcohol and ether as a means moreso of numbing pain than increasing performance. This progressed to actual performance-enhancing substances such as strychnine, and amphetamines. Then came steroids, and eventually Armstrong’s drug of choice, EPO.
Comparing a who’s-who of cycling’s great champions with a who’s-who of cycling’s great dopers will reveal huge overlap. Some of the biggest names in the sport – Coppi, Thevnet, Merckx, Kelly, Pantani, Contador – have all either admitted to taking, and/or tested positive for, banned substances. Then there was the death of British cyclist Tom Simpson during the 1967 tour. While it was unlikely that the amphetamines found in Simpson’s system were the cause of his death, any article or discussion on the topic will imply or suggest a direct link between the two.
On to the 1990s then, and the advent of EPO, a drug that increases the volume of valuable oxygen-carrying red blood cells, highly desireable for any endurance athlete. Two time Tour de France champion Laurent Fignon, who himself tested positive for amphetamines in 1987, famously wrote in his autobiography how he decided to call time on his career after being passed during races by riders who previously would not have been able to compete with him. It was clear to him the changes that EPO were making to the sport, and rather than participate, he opted out.
Average speeds of three-week races began to rise. The increasing fatigue that was once evident in riders over the duration of a long race disappeared. All as a result of the prevalence of EPO in the professional peloton.
In 1992 Lance Armstrong signed his first professional contract with the US Motorola team. He had been a champion triathlete and his physique was condusive to performing well in either a single stage of a multi-stage race, or in a one-day race. Indeed he became world champion in 1993 and wore the coveted rainbow jersey for the following 12-months. There was nothing to suggest he would ever become a rider capable of competing for overall honours in a three-week tour, let alone that he would go on to dominate the sport for many years to follow.
In 1996 he was diagnosed with stage-three testicular cancer and was given less than a 50% chance of survival. In what would prove the greatest of all his victories, he overcame his illness and returned to the sport in 1998.
During the years Armstrong was battling his cancer, EPO had gained such a foothold in the sport of cycling that it was pointless to even consider competing without it. And, like all other top riders at the time, Armstrong decided he had no option but to take it.
What happened afterwards has been documented in great detail by many of those who experienced, first-hand, what happened. There have been countless books and documentaries, and now, finally, a movie on the subject.
The movie purports to be a loose adaptation of Walsh’s book, ‘Seven Deadly Sins‘, which he published after the USADA report was released. The book itself rehashed a lot of what came before, either by Walsh himself, or by others who had written on the topic. There is a lot of repetition from Walsh’s own ‘From Lance to Landis‘, the book he co-authored with French journalist Pierre Ballester, ‘L.A. Confidentiel‘, Tyler Hamilton’s book, ‘The Secret Race‘, and the mammoth seven-hour long interview Floyd Landis gave to journalist Paul Kimmage. ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ is more focused on Walsh’s own involvement in the case, and rather than being merely the person who blew the proverbial lid on Armstrong’s deceit, he has become very much an integral part of the story. It was somewhat inevitable a movie would follow.
To the movie then.
Attempting to cover this story in a single 103-minute movie is a near impossibility. To do so properly would require a lot of background on the sport. It would require a lot more context on the character and personality of Armstrong himself, his childhood, his family, and a lot more detail of what actually happened while the story was unfolding, than the movie manages to give us.
Indeed, one wonders if there was any other motivation for making the movie in the first place than the additional wealth it might bestow on the beneficiaries. The story has already been told, multiple times. It has been developed to a point where all versions have now converged on a single, true, version. Or, if it were going to be made, why not as a documentary using actual footage, rather than having actors act out actual scenes (which are readily available on the internet), where every aspect of the demeanour of the protagonists have been copied to a tee?
Its difficult to think of other sports-related movies that have been made so soon after an event, where all the protagonists are well-known, and are still mostly very much alive. ‘The Blind Side‘ is one that immediately comes to mind. Others exist, sure, but are more likely to appear at 11am on the True Movies channel, than become Hollywood blockbusters.
For a cycling fan watching this movie, one thing is immediately apparent. Every actor playing one of the main protagonists in the story, people who have become more famous from their involvement with Armstrong than they ever did from their own sporting achievements, are superbly cast. Almost without exception they are dead-ringers for the people they play, and once you get used to the fact that it’s not actually Johann Brunyeel or Floyd Landis you’re watching, you do manage to park any cynicism you may have had.
The lead role of Lance Armstrong is played wonderfully by Ben Foster. Foster revealed in an interview recently that he took EPO while making the movie, though didn’t reveal whether this was as a form of method acting or whether it was to assist him in the cycling scenes. It doesn’t take long before you stop seeing Foster and you start seeing Armstrong. The level of detail in Foster’s portrayal is something to behold. He even masters Amstrong’s unique riding style, and there are times in the movie when actual footage of the real Armstrong is interchanged with Foster’s Armstrong, and you need to do a double-take to realise which one you’re watching.
Which leads back to the question, why bother make this movie? Why not just show actual footage?
Other than Foster’s performance The Program has little else to recommend it. It begins circa 1993 with Armstrong resplendent in his world champion’s rainbow jersey. A 10-second conversation between him and Johann Bruyneel, followed by a montage of somewhat cringeable race scenes, is all the movie provides by way of letting us know that cycling has a doping problem.
The main pioneer of blood and EPO doping, Dr. Michele Ferarri, is introduced; we get a brief synopsis of what EPO is, he and Amstrong are introduced, and the scene is set for the rest of the movie. But, what becomes very apparent to those familiar with the story is that it either omits massive chunks, or skirts fleetingly over parts that deserved to be given more attention. For example, there is a scene where Lance meets his first wife, Kristen. This was a woman he was married to for the majority of the period he dominated cycling. She stood by him and remained defiant in her denial that he ever cheated in the sport, and still does to this day. Kristen was a huge part of Lance’s life during that period, yet her involvement in the movie was something like this;
Lance: Do you like Italian
Lance: Do you like oysters
Cut to wedding scenes which lasts all of 3 seconds. Thats it. Nothing more about or from Kristen from then on.
The wardobe and set designers must be given their due credit for level of detail they bring, in particular, to the cyclings scenes. The bikes, the team kit, podium presentations, all look authentic. Theres a scene where Lance gives sworn testimony in a case that one of his sponsors took against him to try and reclaim some of the bonus money they paid him. This episode is very significant as it is the first time he lied under oath about doping. For this reason, footage of the actual incident has been included in every documentary made on the subject. Recreating this scene in the movie required a meticulous recreation of the room the hearing was held in, right down to the furniture, and the clothing those in the room wore. And they did an excellent job, but again: why bother?
Another major flaw of this movie is the sympathetic light it paints Armstrong in. David Walsh was questioned about this in the Q+A session that followed the premiere screening and he denied this was the case. However, there are several highly publicised incidents that took place which were either omitted completely, or were poorly dealt with in the movie. One scene that is included is the ‘showdown’ Armstrong decided to have with Filippo Simeoni, who had testified in a legal case against Michele Ferarri. The way this transpired in reality is far nastier and sinister than was portrayed in the movie, and led to the premature end of Simeoni’s career.
Another such incident took place at the Cache Cache restaurant in Aspen, Colorado. It involved Tyler Hamilton, one of Armstrong’s former lieutentants at the US Postal team, and a major protagonist in the whole Armstrong saga, yet one worthy of only being mentioned by name once in the movie. The gist of what happened is that Hamilton went to the restaurant, Armstrong was inside having dinner, and when he became aware of Hamilton’s presence, moved to block him from entering and created an embarassing scene. The restaurant owner then barred Hamilton from returning.
People who follow the sport of cycling know the problems within the sport. They are aware that some cyclists dope and are caught while others dope but manage to evade detection. They are aware of past collusion between the governing body of the sport and that cyclists would only get caught if the governing body willed it. They are aware that the governing body would not allow someone get caught if they felt it better for the sport for them to remain in it.
That was Lance Armstrong. Single-handedly he promoted the sport at an unprecedented level, and at a level likely never to be repeated. Cycling, once a niche sport, was suddenly part of the mainstream. With that came lucrative sponsorship, TV deals, and many people became very wealthy as a result.
How then did someone that untouchable get caught? The movie deals with this rather poorly too. Floyd Landis, played by Jesse Plemons (Todd from Breaking Bad), gets caught, initially protests his innocence, eventually admits guilt, testifies to USADA, and Lance gets busted. The reality is something along those lines, but what the movie omits is that several of Armstrong’s former teammates also came forward to give evidence. George Hincapie, Tom Danielson, Jonathan Vaughters, among others, would provide this damning evidence, but there is not a single mention of this in the movie. Nor does it mention the attempts by Armstrong, right up until the end, to suppress the report, or that it effectively had to be leaked on the internet for fear his attempts to suppress it would prove successful.
It truly is a complex tale and Armstrong is a complex individual. It it the story of a borderline sociopath who, with the cooperation of many of those in power, dominated the world of sport for several years. And he was eventually caught. But he wasn’t simply caught for doping. Armstrong had twice tested positive for drugs at different stages in his career. If there was any desire to rid the sport of cheats, he would have been banned. But there was no such desire, and that the movie does not adequately address this is a major failing. Armstrong was caught because of how generally unlikeable he became. Other cyclists dope, and do so every bit as obviously as Armstrong did, but there are no journalists on a quest to bring them down.
Was Armstrong unfairly treated? You could certainly argue this. You can count the number of cyclists who have received lifetime bans on one hand. Does Armstrong deserve any sympathy for being unfairly treated, then? Not at all. Armstrong was a bully. He ensured people were afraid to cross him, and punished them when they did. He destroyed Greg LeMond’s business after he spoke out against doping. He ended the careers of Christophe Bassons and Filippo Simeoni when they did likewise. He slandered and intimidated others such as Emma O’Reilly and Betsy Andreu.
It’s arguable how much of the eventual outcome can be attributed to David Walsh. He was certainly brave in how outspoken he was in 2004, when L.A. Confidentiele was published. By 2012 though, the prevalent opinion about Armstrong was that of suspicion. Ultimately people like Jeff Novitsky and Paul Kimmage have every bit as big a role in bringing things to a head. Some of the witnesses in the USADA investigation had already been identified by Walsh (Emma O’Reilly, Frankie and Betsy Andreu), so he certainly did some good there. He got there first. He pursued Armstrong when it wasn’t the popular thing to do and he’s reaping the financial rewards now.
Chris O’Dowd plays Walsh in the movie, and plays him pretty well. His portrayal covers how there was initial reticence from his publisher to run with any story questioning Armstrong. It shows how he was alienated from the journalistic community when Lance deemed that it should be so. And best of all, it did not explicitly portray the eventual exposing of Armstrong as being some kind of personal victory. There was no party scene or any sense of triumphalism evident. And that was good.
What isn’t clear from the movie is that far more people than Walsh played a part in this saga. Most had far more to lose than Walsh who, by his own admission, was just doing his job. Prior to the premiere screening he was almost apologetic if it seemed all the credit was being attributed to him. Unfortunately, Walsh is unlikely to be in attendance at every screening of this movie to be able to make that apology.