Lance Armstrong: He was a 'tragic hero'

Story highlights

  • Film based on journalist's bid to bring down champion cyclist
  • David Walsh was Lance Armstrong's nemesis
  • Says Texan used cancer survival "as a shield"
  • Director says Armstrong "very good" at lying

(CNN)France, 1999.

It was supposedly the "Tour of Renewal" -- the year cycling stepped out from the shadows of a doping controversy that had brought it to its knees.
    And so it went: a sporting resurrection. Cycling had its savior, Lance Armstrong.
    He was the man given slim odds of surviving testicular cancer who had returned from the precipice -- a man who would go on to win perhaps the world's hardest individual event, seven times in a row.
    Lance Armstrong, leader of the peloton. Lance Armstrong, leader of what the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) would later call "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen."
    A stencil graffiti depicting Armstrong in a Tour leader's yellow jersey, attached to an IV drip.
    For decades, the omertà -- or code of silence -- in professional cycling had prevailed. An endemic doping culture remained in certain circles. A corrupt order was maintained.
    But, as award-winning Sunday Times journalist David Walsh -- a key protagonist in bringing down Armstrong -- told CNN: "The powerful can get away with stuff for a long time but maybe in some cases not forever."
    There would be no forever for Armstrong, who was stripped of all seven of his Tour de France titles and banned from competitive sport for life.

    A transcendental champion

    Stephen Frears' 2015 Armstrong biopic "The Program" -- released in U.S. theaters last month -- depicts a young Walsh's nervous twitch amid the camaraderie of the Tour de France press room, following that unlikely triumph by the American cyclist.
    It is a moment of realization: Surely Armstrong's performance was too good to be true?
    In the 13 years that followed, Walsh became one of the select few daring enough to excoriate the sport's doping culture.
    In doing so, he was vilified for seeking the truth -- not only by the cyclists themselves, but even his journalism peers.
    "Why are you so obsessed with this?" "Why are you not obsessed with this?" runs a press room exchange in "The Program" between Walsh and his colleagues.
    Here was a journalist's search for truth, set against an athlete's search for victory at all costs.
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    "David Walsh was also obsessive," director Frears tells CNN.
    "I suppose I set them up as opposing forces in the film, though they didn't come into contact very often."
    So why did Walsh focus so relentlessly on Armstrong when others were also doping? After all, just one podium-finisher from the 1999-2005 era of Armstrong hegemony, Fernando Escartin, has not been implicated in a doping scandal.
    "The whole cancer survivorship meant he had a very special place in the firmament of sports stars," Walsh says.
    "Lance became a global icon. So, if he was committing a fraud, it was different to anyone else -- different to (disgraced Canadian sprinter) Ben Johnson even, which was a very big event."

    Mea culpa

    Asked for a response to the film, Armstrong's representatives told CNN: "We do not have any interest in adding anything," though during his 2013 "mea culpa" interview with Oprah Winfrey, the American said he was having to deal with a lot of "ugly stuff."
    He added: "I feel ashamed. I deserve to be punished," before going on to describe himself as "deeply flawed" and "arrogant."
    A year later in an interview with CNN, Armstrong said: "I don't blame anyone for thinking, 'I don't trust this guy with all his bulls**t for 10 years.'"
    Armstrong's obsessiveness didn't just modernize and revolutionize cycling. He brought a similarly ruthless and methodical approach to doping -- less if you can't beat them, join 'em ... more join 'em and do it even better.
    "He was very, very good at it," the director muses. "He was just better at it than anyone else. More systematic."

    The fall

    A fall from an unremarkable height does not capture the imagination quite like the fall of a man who has reached the pinnacle of his sport and continued climbing.
    "Lance became a symbol of hope to people, and that hope was built on a lie," Walsh asserts. "It was a lie that needed to be explained."
    Not that the lie was easy to expose.
    Christophe Bassons, a fellow cyclist, had possessed the temerity to speak out against doping in 1999.
    In the film, Armstrong rides alongside him and says: "I have the money and power to destroy you."
    Years later, in the 2013 interview with Winfrey, Armstrong described his behavior succinctly. "I was a bully," he said.
    Given his power and standing within the peloton, Armstrong didn't just run from the rumors -- he even utilized the accusations for financial gain in a series of Nike advertisements.
    "Everybody wants to know what I'm on," he says in one commercial. "What am I on? I'm on my bike busting my ass six hours a day."

    U.S. Anti-doping Agency

    It was Armstrong's misfortune that the head of the USADA, Travis T. Tygart, wouldn't be intimidated by cycling's omertà.
    "Sometimes sportsmen do get too big to be brought down," Walsh muses, suggesting that other countries might not have fought so hard to topple one of their own superstars.
    "It's a tremendous tribute to the U.S. that they were prepared to bring down their own champion."

    The cancer survivor

    There is a moment in "The Program," after a rousing address to a gathering of cancer survivors, in which Armstrong says: "I just tell 'em what they want to hear."
    Was the general public culpable in some way as well, desperate to believe the fantastical?
    "He knew he was 'The Cancer Survivor,'" Walsh says. "He knew he was going to become an iconic figure within the cancer community."
    In the film, Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service teammate Floyd Landis rails against his "f**king cancer shield."
    "Cancer survivor" was an adjective that, for good or ill, followed Armstrong wherever he went.
    "The bit Lance will find hard to reconcile with himself will be the way he lied to the cancer community," Walsh says.
    "He set up his foundation and did a lot of good work, but he also used his cancer work as a shield -- no question about that. He knew the lie he was telling."

    Mirror, mirror on the wall

    One scene in "The Program" has Armstrong looking into a mirror and repeating to himself: "I've never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. I've never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs."
    "I don't think you could have told a lie as great as the lie he told and not have had moments where he thought, 'You know what, this has got completely out of control -- this is something I can't get out of,'" Walsh says.
    "He must have had that: He's human.
    "When he sued the Sunday Times, it's perjury, and he knows there are consequences if ever that perjury is discovered. He was playing for very high stakes, and he's too intelligent not to have been aware."
    When Armstrong spoke to CNN in 2014, the American admitted he "was good at playing the part. Once you say 'no' you have to keep saying 'no.'
    "If this stuff hadn't taken place with the federal investigation, I'd probably still be saying 'no' with the same conviction and tone as before."

    Cult of personality

    "I don't think he's a particularly self-reflective person," Frears says of Armstrong. "You have to be a certain kind of person to lie on that scale."
    "When Lance lied, he lied very convincingly," Walsh adds.
    "He had a little bit of the sociopath in him, so he didn't mind telling the lies and could easily deal with the questions.
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    "But it wasn't just that sociopathic tendency," the journalist continues. "Lance is a very charismatic man. He could command a room. Wherever you are now, if Lance Armstrong walked in, you would be drawn towards him ... charmed."

    Tragic hero, or heroic villain?

    A tragic hero, as defined by Greek philosopher Aristotle, rises to a transcendental height, only to spectacularly fall -- a character with a fatal flaw (or hamartia) that ultimately leads to his or her own ruin.
    How do we reconcile Armstrong's ostensible status as savior of his sport and the lurking reality? Is the Texan a tragic hero, or heroic villain?
    Walsh, thus far effervescent in his responses, pauses for the first time.
    "I think tragic hero ... Lance himself used the word 'flawed' when being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, so I would maybe call him a 'flawed hero.'"
    During that interview, Armstrong unequivocally admitted that his seven Tour de France titles had been unjustly won for the first time.
    "It's just this mythic, perfect story and it isn't true," he said.
    In the sporting world, many think winning is everything -- no matter how the victory is achieved. But Walsh argues that sport needs to remember what is "right and wrong."
    "Does it matter if you win, but you win in the wrong way? I would say it does matter, and I would say this story is proof that it matters how you win."

    The moral of this morality Tale

    Walsh believes professional sport "has killed a lot of what we love."
    "It says 'losers are nothing,' but, actually, the whole idea of sport was about taking part."
    "I hope that Lance's story can act as a reminder to people, like a signpost that says, 'This is not the way to go; it is not okay to win at all costs.'
    "I'm glad there's a film out about it now, because that's another way of perpetuating the message."
    Art Murals are seen outside the Nike and the Lance Armstrong Foundation's Global Art Exhibition Hollywood, California.
    Armstrong was cycling's poster boy after that 1999 Tour de France. His story seemed destined for the silver screen.
    However, "The Program" is not quite the portrayal that those inspired by Armstrong would have foreseen.
    "There's an expression in sport that says, 'Do whatever it takes,'" Walsh says. "My view is, 'Do whatever it takes, yes, provided you do so within certain boundaries.'
    "If there are rules then they must be respected, and if there are ethical standards then they cannot be ignored.
    "How you win may well become part of your story, and Lance won in a way that absolutely overwhelmed his."
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