The Program- Cycling on Trial?

Lance Armstrong wasn’t the only cyclist who doped. At its height, Sporting Intelligence reckons 65% of riders were taking Erythropoietin or EPO, the drug that allowed Armstrong to win seven Tour De France titles in a row. Names like Jan Ulrich, Richard Virenque, Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, David Miller and Laurent Jalabert appear when the history of this sorry saga is laid out. The shadow of the doping scandal hangs over more recent tours, with Chris Froome hitting out at Jalabert over comments the latter made during the 2013 Tour, regarding Froome’s performance. Even women’s cycling has been affected, with Canadian rider Genevieve Jeanson testing postive for EPO.

Much of that wider scandal seems to have been ignored in The Program, the new film by Stephen Frears that retells the story of Armstrong’s doping and the efforts of David Walsh, the journalist who exposed him. Judging from the trailer this is the sports film equivalent of Watergate, and why not? It has all the elements of a fairy tale where the hero turns out to have been a dark prince.

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Cycling remains a tainted sport…

Armstrong looked and sounded like an All-American hero. Having been told that he had six months to live due to testicular cancer that had spread throughout his body, Armstrong went on to win the most difficult endurance event in the world seven times. At the same time The Program strives to tell the story of David Walsh, the crusading journalist who spent thirteen years attempting to un-cover Armstrong’s doping. He felt and claimed that Armstrong was able to use the cancer as a shield against people asking what were increasingly necessary questions.

The Program simply chases the cheap glory of a simplified ‘good and evil’ story.

It has David and Goliath, good and bad, black and white written all over it, with Armstrong identified as the sole villain in taking one of the world’s greatest sports and corrupting it, since he was the one who made cycling a ‘global success’. What can such a film accomplish save establishing a simplified, narrowed version of a far bigger truth? Yes, Armstrong doped, and yes the picture we see painted is not going to be an edifying one where he is concerned. That said, in a world where nearly two thirds of riders were doping, where the anger of those who stayed clean is an expose in itself, can any film justify such a focus on one man? Do we just let the numerous others off because Armstrong was far more prominent?

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Cycling remains a tainted sport. You only needed to read about Chris Froome being covered in urine on this year’s tour, or the fact that the likes of Richard Virenque and Laurent Jalabert,both having been found to have doped, remain big names in the world of French cycling, to know that. Armstrong’s legacy, poisonous though it may be, is only a part of the picture, not least because doping existed before his rise to fame and after his fall from grace. By focusing on that part, The Program will ensure that all anyone ever remembers when it comes to the doping scandal is Armstrong’s involvement, (and it will be a two dimensional remembrance at that).

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Cycling became a world of grey where the line between cheating and winning was blurred so much that the two were virtually synonymous. By blackening Armstrong’s character still further, and rendering David Walsh in crusading white, The Program simply chases the cheap glory of a simplified ‘good and evil’ story, rather than trying to grasp the bigger picture and offer a more accurate account of a corrupted cycling world.

By Gareth Wood

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