There are few stories more abjectly fascinating than those surrounding Lance Armstrong’s triumph over a cancer he was given infinitesimally small chance of surviving and his subsequent seven Tour de France (AKA Tour de Lance) victories.
Consequently, there are few stories more assumptions-shattering than the revelation that Armstrong had, in fact, been using drugs to aid his wins all along.
The Program, so named to describe the doping program Armstrong (played convincingly by Ben Foster) and his teammates followed, answers the questions we’ve been wondering for years: How did he do it? And how did he manage to get away with it for so long?
The film’s opening scene features a solitary cyclist climbing a mountain. The only sounds we hear are the wind, the rider’s breath, and the sound of a helicopter hovering overhead. It is, presumably, Armstrong out in front of the peloton in the Tour de France. Or it’s simply an arresting visual of a rider alone with their thoughts, battling the elements as they work to ascend a mountain.
The Tour de France features 180 riders, 20 stages, and just one—highly prized—yellow jersey. Armstrong won the event a record seven times, and he did so after overcoming a debilitating cancer no one should have overcome. It’s unsurprising his wins took on mythic proportions in our minds.
Armstrong would likely have remained a legendary figure had it not been for sports writer David Walsh (played by Chris O’Dowd). He was the only journalist who doubted Armstrong’s triumphant physical makeover (Armstrong was built for one-day cycling events, not three-week tours that involved mountainous range) and the only person to doggedly work to uncover the doping truth.
‘He’s a man transformed,’ Walsh says at one point. ‘He recovered from cancer and turned into bloody Superman.’
And: ‘I have no interest in going up a mountain to watch chemists compete.’
To be fair, Armstrong decided to dope because everyone else was already doing it. I know, I know, that doesn’t make it even remotely alright. And yes, the ‘if everyone jumped off a cliff, would you?’ example springs to mind. Armstrong wasn’t and isn’t a sheep. He’s a ruthless competitor who knew what he was doing.
But as one friend and avid cyclist said to me when the news of Armstrong’s doping finally broke, he might have been taking performance-enhancing drugs, but he still consistently beat a field of guys who were likely also doping. Was he simply levelling the playing field?
I don’t know. With Armstrong’s story, we’re knee deep in murky ethics. And consciences weighing heavy.
‘I just told them what they wanted to hear,’ he tells his future wife after he delivers an inspiring speech about beating cancer. Which is arguably true. We wanted to believe in Armstrong’s story just as much as he wanted us to believe it.
And there were arguably some benefits to his profile and success, however false. He raised millions of dollars for cancer research. He inspired people experiencing cancer to fight to live.
I’m not condoning what Armstrong did. Like everyone else, I got teary when he stood up on the podium time and again. And I felt foolish and frustrated I’d been duped.
I’d even read and loved his two ghost-written memoirs, It’s Not About The Bike: My Journey Back to Life and Every Second Counts, rabbiting on about how incredible it was he’d beat the odds and how hard he’d worked for his victories.
So I was particularly annoyed they turned out to be if not entirely false, then at least playing loose with facts. It’s well-documented—and slightly bemusing—that people shifted those titles from the non-fiction to fiction sections in bookshops.
Even though Armstrong’s actions were wholly wrong, The Program gives us the most insightful and nuanced examination of Armstrong and his motivations to date.
That’s not to say the film’s perfect. Plenty is skimmed over, not least Armstrong’s battle with cancer and his marriages and relationships. Seriously, the audience kind of chuckled in surprise at how the film cut from Armstrong asking a woman in a hallway if she liked Italian food to—literally—them emerging from a church married. We never saw her again and at one stage his three children, who had not been mentioned or appeared prior to that, joined him on the podium.
But that’s also a sign the film stayed true to its intent: depicting the doping program Armstrong and his teammates underwent in order to win.
Based on detailed legal documents and reports surrounding his exposure and the stripping of his titles, The Program is the closest thing we’ve got to date about how the doping was carried out. It’s fictional and Armstrong obviously hasn’t condoned it, but I’d like to think the film offers the rest of us some insight into the hows and the whys. It’s certainly closer to the truth than Armstrong’s two books. For those reasons, I’d recommend we watch it.