A week after The Last Dance, ESPN premiered part one of Lance, their two-part 30 for 30 on Lance Armstrong. Maybe it was the fact that it directly followed a 10-part miniseries on basketball’s GOAT — someone who, for all his faults, played the sport fairly and with love for the game. Perhaps it’s that Armstrong’s crimes were unforgivable.
Whatever the reason, Lance premiered to a collective yawn. Part two fared little better. But the reception wasn’t simply due to the world’s distaste for Armstrong. He also took his time in front of the camera to discuss his place in the sports world.
Lance Armstrong’s peers: LeBron James and Michael Phelps?
Armstrong went on to say that if he were still competing, his peers would be athletes like LeBron James and Michael Phelps. When that clip landed on Twitter and Facebook, the reaction was as you’d expect. Viewers hated it, most believing Armstrong’s checkered past meant he wasn’t worthy of comparing himself against two greats.
It’s a difficult issue to resolve. For a period of nearly a decade, Armstrong was undeniably the greatest cyclist in the world. Allegations of cheating (steroids, blood doping, etc) followed him nearly his entire career. But he continued to put up incredible performances while being repeatedly tested.
In 2012 and 2013, when the evidence against him became undeniable, Armstrong’s titles were stripped. At first glance, this should mean that clearly, no, he’s not in the league with Phelps and James… right?
A more sympathetic view
Other sports haven’t thrown the book at cheats like cycling did. Barry Bonds probably won’t make it into the Hall of Fame; there will always be asterisks by his records. But he was undeniably an incredible player. Even without steroids, he would’ve been great. Bonds is still grudgingly respected as the single-season home-run king. (Of course, he dethroned Mark McGwire who had his own relationship with PEDs).
Armstrong shouldn’t get credit for winning the Tour de France. He certainly shouldn’t be revered. But he wasn’t the only one on the tour doping. In addition to his teammates, there were undoubtedly others. But the history books don’t focus on them, because Armstrong won the race again and again.
Just like Phelps and James, he won when he needed to. Regardless of whether he was cheating or not (and to what degree), Armstrong crossed the finish line first. It’s fair to ask if he deserves the accolades he received, even if they’re gone now. But to his point about being peers with James and Phelps, it’s difficult to disagree.
What Armstrong believes
Of course, you can say that none of it matters. Armstrong cheated, he got caught, that’s the end of it. If that’s your position, nothing can convince you that he’s on the same level as those other superstars. And although he got some underhanded help, he beat the best racers in the world again and again. James is the best basketball player of his era and possibly ever.
Phelps is the best swimmer ever — period. For a period of about a decade, Armstrong was the greatest bicycle racer. Ever. He lost all that, and he doesn’t deserve to get it back. But was he at the top of the game? Did he occupy a spot that James and Phelps do in their respective sports? Absolutely… at least if you listen to Lance.