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In a new documentary, Lance Armstrong shows plenty of rage but little regret

ESPN’s new film on the cyclist is a compelling study in the corruption of the male athletic ego

“It’s a miracle I’m not a mass murderer,” Lance Armstrong, reflecting on his mother Linda’s laissez-faire approach to parenting, muses in the opening scenes of Lance, the new two-part ESPN documentary whose first half screens in the US on Sunday night. In the 10 minutes that follow, director Marina Zenovich assembles a tableau of reminiscences that make that shocking admission seem somehow understandable. We see Armstrong’s stepfather, Terry Armstrong, claim that “Lance would not be the champion he is today without me, because I drove him. I drove him like an animal.” (“He beat the shit out of me,” Lance recalls.) We hear Armstrong explaining how he forged his birth certificate to pass himself off as a 16-year-old and enter his first triathlon, rationalizing the deception with cool command: “Forge the certificate, compete illegally, and beat everybody.” We watch as cycling contemporary Bobby Julich recalls how, at the end of his first head-to-head race against Armstrong, when they were both still teenagers, Armstrong yelled at him: “Come on you fucking pussy, let’s keep going – I’m not done yet.”

The casual violence, the callous disregard for rules and the feelings of others: Armstrong did not come to any of these late in life, once his course as a professional cyclist was set. He was practically marinating in insensitivity from the womb. Born into a rotten system, Armstrong stayed rotten. What emerges at the end of these four hours is the story not so much of a single bad apple as a profoundly bad batch – a comprehensive, cradle-to-gallows account of the downfall of an elite athlete performing exactly in line with his surrounding incentives. Amid the brutality, competition, and insecurity of life in post-Reagan America, is it any wonder a man like Lance Armstrong was able to lie, cheat and bully his way to the top? The problem is not this man in particular, Zenovich seems to invite us to conclude, as men in general: their incurable ambition and violence, the fragility of their morals.

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