There is a moment in the midst of the new tell-all documentary, Lance, in which the main subject attempts to explain himself.
Actually, there are a few of those, none at all like any other, but this is one of them.
Lance Armstrong is recalling his return to cycling after nearly dying of testicular cancer. He was physically diminished and, unsurprisingly, no major team wanted him. He’d decided to retire, but was bullied into finishing the season. Then he started winning.
“This realization that I’m going to get another shot at this,” Armstrong says. “Another shot at life. Another shot at sport. Another shot at glory. Another shot at money. Another shot at fame.”
That moment started off nicely, and got dark pretty quickly.
This is why, more than 20 years after the fact, we are still talking about Lance Armstrong.
Armstrong continues to epitomize the fallen hero. He was the 21st century’s first and perhaps still greatest cancelled celebrity.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about cancel culture. The trend has gone turbo during the pandemic, presumably because a lot of people have nothing better to do these days than make trouble on the internet.
But don’t worry, they’re doing God’s work. A couple of weeks ago, the mob took down a cookbook writer at the New York Times. What a thrilling blow for justice.
There’s been an inversion of the old saying. Just at the moment, you are the worst thing you’ve ever done. Even if that worst thing is an ill-judged attempt at saltiness in an interview.
The logic here is that people only occasionally reveal their true selves. One slip is proof of the dark soul they’ve managed to hide until that point. This has become something like the ordeal by water in a witch trial – “She floats!”
Once that darkness is revealed, it defines you. While once you were presumed to be entirely good, now you are equally presumed to be entirely bad. The only grey that may exist in this world is in the weather forecast.
Just as you are thinking about such things, Armstrong pops up again. He’s here to remind us how much moral geography one human being can occupy.
Because he is a remarkable person who has been that way for a long time, Armstrong has got the benefit of multiple deep explorations of his experience.
He’s written books, done podcasts and got raked by Oprah. Explaining and re-explaining himself is one of his many compulsions.
And yet, despite his many attempts to settle the matter, there is no end to his complications.
The Armstrong we see here is monumentally selfish and one of the great philanthropists of his generation. He is a cruel person who has known enormous suffering. You would not lend him money, but you’d love to buy him a beer.
He is funny, scary, wise in his way, delusional, kind, cunning and just about all the other things a person can be.
He’s not any one thing. He is all things, simultaneously. Just like the rest of us. But no one bothers to interview us for hours because we’ve never won anything.
Ostensibly, the point of this doc is allowing Armstrong to confess in detail to his cheating. There is plenty of that.
At this point, who cares? Armstrong did performance-enhancing drugs. So did just about every other elite cyclist in the early 2000s. All of Armstrong’s teammates featured in the documentary – each of them far more sympathetic than him – admits to doing the same thing.
Armstrong still won seven consecutive Tour de Frances. It’s not as though he had access to extra-strength EPO while everyone else was doing the generic kind. Drugs or no drugs, he was still the best.
What people really objected to about Armstrong was the lengths he went to cover up his cheating. The denials – always issued in a tone of high dudgeon – were one thing. Viciously submarining former friends who’d been in on the scam was another.
Armstrong’s spirit animal is the raccoon – adorable when spotted in daylight; operates largely in darkness; attacks when cornered.
One Armstrong we have yet to see is the contrite Armstrong. The second half of the doc airs Sunday night on TSN, so maybe that’s still coming. But I doubt it.
Whenever he admits his sins, Armstrong does so with something more than the suggestion of a smirk. The effect is somewhere between “I been a very bad boy” and “See how smart I was?”
Is he sorry? Maybe. He sure doesn’t look it.
Measuring another person’s intentions is a mug’s game. I mean, do you know why you do everything you do? Probably not. So why would any of us presume to know why other people do those same things?
And yet we do. Constantly.
What makes Armstrong fascinating is that he defies that impulse. He is so contradictory, so changeable, so grey, that you haven’t the least idea what makes him tick. Given the opportunity to explain himself at length, he shows us how complex a person can be.
Only famous people – usually famously bad people – get this treatment, which is a shame.
New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell spent most of his unusual career exploring oddballs. Mitchell’s twist on the genre was focusing on average people.
His method was deep interviewing, sometimes years of it. He’d question and question and question until he had unravelled someone.
The results are some of the finest journalism produced. If you haven’t read Up in the Old Hotel, do yourself the favour.
Mitchell proved everyone has a story; everyone has a secret; everyone did something they shouldn’t; everyone wants to be good; and not everyone ends up that way.
Each of us is a world unto ourselves. Lance vividly reminds us how vast those worlds are, and that only a very few of us get the chance to show others what they look like.