To start the second and final part of ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentary on Lance Armstrong, he is asked if he is still relevant.
“I am relevant,” Armstrong said.
I’ll be pleasantly surprised if you read this far into a column about Lance Armstrong.
Lance Armstrong is not even a pariah. He’s just history.
ESPN’s second major 30 For 30 released this spring, the documentary on the racer from Plano, Texas, is far superior to the 10-part infomercial on Michael Jordan.
“I think he is relevant to certain people,” said the film’s director, Marina Zenovich, in a phone interview. “He’s relevant for what he did for cancer. He’s relevant as a bad-ass cyclist. Is he relevant to younger generations or people who were disgusted by what he did, doping, lying, bullying and cheating? I don’t know. In his world, he’s relevant.”
Unlike The Last Dance, hard questions are asked in Lance. This is a balanced, compelling examination of a global icon. Even if you don’t believe Lance is relevant, the film is riveting. Part II airs at 9 Sunday night on ESPN and ESPN2.
Lance is far more forthcoming than MJ. The other difference between the two documentaries, as evidenced by the reaction and the poor ratings to Lance, is no one is interested in what Lance says.
MJ remains relevant to past, present and future generations, thanks primarily to the rise of his chosen sport, the marketing of his brand and others which with he was associated, and his obsession with privacy.
Armstrong is not even loathed or reviled anymore. Unlike Jordan, who is fame fatigued, Lance still wants it. His ascent ended right around the time social media began to change the world, which included fame’s shrinking timeline.
We move on fast now.
It has been seven years since Armstrong came clean to Oprah Winfrey, and his relevancy lasted for about one more month.
The following generations don’t know much about Lance, and those who were there during his peak of power, and denials, have moved on from a guy whose popularity was born on the saddle of a sport that rides on the outside shoulder of America’s sports highway.
Lance’s problem isn’t that he retired the yellow jersey in lying. We are so numb to our icons, leaders and heroes lying, it no longer phases us.
Lance’s problem remains that he won obscure events on a different continent in what is now classified as eons ago.
Once one of the most popular, and inspiring, athletes in the world is now mostly just another rich guy who gamed the system to his benefit and just isn’t famous any more.
It’s not that people have, or have not, forgiven Lance, but rather they just don’t care.
There exist pockets of people who protect Lance and are not comfortable with those who dare criticize him.
He earned it. Like anything, and anyone, there are consequences.
As evidenced by the documentary, he’s dealing with them. At least on camera, he’s good at owning it and acknowledging that what made him successful as a rider worked against him off the bike.
There is only one portion of the documentary where he sounds angry at someone other than himself. He takes issue with the double standard that allowed other dirty riders, like his friend George Hincapie, who “gets a pass but they destroy me,” Armstrong says.
Only those in the cycling community know George Hincapie. Lance Armstrong benefited from media-driven fame, and fandom, unlike any rider ever has before, or ever will.
“I think he’s getting it. It’s a process,” Zenovich said. “He’s two years along from when we did that interview. I think if I interviewed him today he’d be different. … Then I think of how low he went, it was his own doing. For him to be able to pick himself up — and not fake pick himself up — and do it and feel OK about yourself in the long term, that’s not easy.”
For those of us who find Armstrong’s tale fascinating, because it is, Lance is worth the time. There just aren’t many of us who care anymore.
Because, as we have seen, for most of America, Lance Armstrong is simply no longer relevant. He’s just history.
But in his case, it’s also a history worth watching.