Stephen Frears film The Program about Lance Armstrong’s doping to win the Tour de France has just opened to near unanimous negative reviews and public neglect. This is too bad. It is a superb film and should be watched by anyone with an interest in sports.
1. Ben Foster’s performance of Lance Armstrong is Oscar-worthy. His acting range is extraordinary. Foster is stunning in showing all the different aspects of Armstrong from a cocky young man to a victim of an appalling cancer to his successful return. It is a professional tragedy that the public’s neglect of the film will mean that Foster’s work is largely unappreciated.
2. It was not just David Walsh. The filmmakers, because they had to tell a complicated story, simplified the plot to one Irish journalist who uncovered Lance Armstrong’s doping. They removed many of Walsh’s collaborators – including the French journalist, Pierre Ballester. Or the extraordinary work of the Danish journalist Niels Christian Jung – himself a former cyclist – who broke the story of the widespread doping in the Tour de France. Or the courage of the USADA investigators led by Travis Tygart who obtained the legal evidence about Armstrong’s doping program.
3.This is not to say that David Walsh does not deserve immense credit for his investigative journalism nor that the Omerta about doping of the cyclists was not matched by most sports journalists. In the film there is a scene where a solitary Walsh is told by other cycling journalists to get out of their car as they do not want to be seen hanging around with such a troublemaker.
To a young journalist the incident must seem like something out of the Stone Age. Ten years ago, however,sports integrity was a very lonely field of research. I remember being picked up at the airport for the international sports conference Play the Game, which at the time was virtually the only place where these issues could be discussed. There was a small bus and Andrew Jennings, Sandro Donati, David Walsh, Jens Weinreich and a few others got on the bus and were driven to the hotel. Someone made a joke that if the sports officials drove the bus off the road how many scandals and controversies they would avoid.
4. Now everyone – from the Qataris to FIFA to every credibility challenged sports official – blathers on about the importance of integrity. The issue of this generation is not raising the awareness of doping or fixing, but ensuring the debate is not hijacked by dubious officials. The same sleezy tactics that gave the world “Weapons of Mass Destruction” and an unnecessary war in Iraq have moved into sports integrity: fake campaigns, bought journalists and false agencies.
5. Part of the reason why The Program is unpopular is the film cuts against the grain. The usual Hollywood plot is the redemption of an asshole. The challenged hero starts out with a problem – (if it is a man, they have to save the world from aliens, redeem the planet and rescue humanity: if it is a woman, they usually have to find themselves a man to marry) – they wrestle with various challenges and at one point, look inside themselves, discover immense spiritual strength and go on to succeed.
The Program is a challenging film because there is no redemption. The central character – Lance Armstrong – is an asshole. He is also a person with an extraordinary story. He genuinely overcame cancer. He genuinely rode to victory in seven Tour de Frances where many of the other riders and teams were soaked with drugs. Armstrong’s genuine accomplishment was in understanding the hypocritical world of professional cycling and learning to dope better than anyone else.
6. This is the one weakness in a very good film. The Program focuses relentlessly on one individual. In doing so the film now seems dated. If it had appeared last year, it would not. But what we have witnessed in the last few months is an extraordinary series of revelations about the deep systemic failure of the anti-doping world in international sports.
Richard Pound’s investigation (catalysed by two courageous whistleblowers and the German journalist Hajo Seppelt) into the Russian anti-doping program revealed that almost their entire “anti-doping program” was actually a doping-enabling program. The laboratories, the clinics, the programs almost everything about Russia’s anti-doping was a sham.
Pound’s second report revealed that some of the very top officials of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) were allegedly a group of criminals who ran their anti-doping program as a racketeering job – where athletes were rigorously tested and then, if caught taking drugs, could pay those same officials to suppress the results.
The purported extortion and criminality at the very top of this sport casts into doubt an entire generation of results in competitions up to and including the Olympics and makes corruption at the athletes level, even Lance Armstrong, seem, well, not small potatoes, but understandable.
7.There is another film that I hope will be made in the next ten years. It is a film that will finally expose some of the criminals who have organized and administered many top-level sports. Until that film comes, watch The Program – it is excellent.