Let’s take a trip back to the summer of 1992. Tennis superstar Andre Agassi has just won the most prestigious title in the men’s game: Wimbledon. The crowd erupts. He’s on his knees. Tears of joy are streaming down his cheeks. And little does he know, this is just the start. Within three years, Agassi would go on to scale an even bigger peak in his sport by becoming the world’s number one ranked player. Yet through all of this, the American harbored a dark secret – one that his fans would probably find rather shocking when it eventually came out.
Before that, though, Agassi’s glittering career continued. And with it came prize after prize after prize. As well as that Wimbledon title in 1992, the tennis star claimed the other three highly prestigious Grand Slam tournaments of the professional game. To start, he won his ‘home’ competition — the U.S. Open — in 1995, and then again in 1999. But it would have been rude not to show off his expertise to the other side of the world now, wouldn’t it?
You bet it would! So, in 1995 Agassi claimed the Australian Open – a tournament he would win again in 2000, 2001 and 2003, too. And it seems he still wasn’t ready to hang up his tennis shoes just yet. In 1999 Agassi returned to Europe, completing the ‘career Grand Slam’ by claiming the French Open title.
That victory elevated him into the pantheon of tennis titans. Modern greats such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Agassi himself are among a list of only eight men to have ever achieved the feat, you see. At the time, the U.S. player was 29 years old, making him the oldest person to secure that accolade. Pretty impressive, eh?
And he still wasn’t finished racking up the achievements, either. In 1996, at his ‘home’ Olympics in Atlanta, Agassi won the gold medal in the men’s singles tournament. He also won the Davis Cup — the most prestigious team event in the men’s game — with the U.S. squad in 1990, 1992 and 1995. Plus, by becoming world number one, Agassi arguably pocketed every major prize available in the game. It’s fair to say, then, it was a pretty extraordinary career.
As you would expect, this level of success didn’t come out of nowhere. Yes, tennis glory looked likely for Agassi from a young age. At 13, the future star was sent to the prestigious Nick Bollettieri tennis school in Florida. And even though the teen’s father could only afford to send his son for three months, the boy ended up staying rather longer than that.
Apparently, you see, it took Bollettieri just 10 minutes of observing the young Agassi’s skills to decide that the boy had a special career ahead of him. “Take your check back. He’s here for free,” the coach reportedly told Agassi’s father, Mike, on the phone after seeing the future champion play.
Understandably, Bollettieri was excited. According to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the prolific coach believed Agassi to have more natural talent than any other player he’d seen. Marking the start of his professional tennis career, the 15-year-old beat John Austin at 1986’s La Quinta tournament in California. And as we already know, it was onwards and upwards for the budding star.
That’s right: the following year, Agassi started to make an impression on the top players, the pundits and the tennis public alike. And he ended that season ranked as the world number 25. It was 1988 when he really put himself on the map, though, claiming six major tournament wins and passing the $1 million mark for career earnings. After just 43 competitions at this point, it was the quickest that any player had reached that milestone.
As if anyone needed any more convincing that a tennis star had been born, 1988 brought other notable achievements for Agassi. He claimed the most consecutive match wins on the men’s tour for a teenager, and he finished the year ranked number three in the world behind Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander. Impressively, Agassi was still only 18 years old by the time the season ended.
There was much more to Agassi than just tennis, though. His good looks and impressive flowing mane earned him the reputation as a rock ’n’ roll athlete. And when he changed his shirt during matches, a chorus of wolf whistles could be heard from the crowd. Unsurprisingly, the sponsors clamored for his signature – and he soon signed a lucrative deal with Nike.
Off the court, Agassi was also turning heads. Firstly, there was his high-profile relationship with actor and singer Barbra Streisand, who was 28 years his senior. Agassi then met and subsequently married actor and model Brooke Shields. They were, as you may remember, the type of young, glamorous couple that regularly adorned the pages of magazines.
Sadly, the Agassi-Shields marriage broke up after two years. Then, just two years after that in 2001, Agassi entered into another high-profile marriage. And this time, it seems his wife had an intricate understanding of what it takes to be a professional tennis player. You see, Agassi married none other than 22-time Grand Slam champion Steffi Graf.
Agassi and Graf remain happily married to this day, with their relationship standing the test of time and the end of Agassi’s high-profile playing career. The pair also have two children and reside in Agassi’s hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada. And with many major investments and charitable oraganizations in their name, they can only be described as a something of a powerhouse couple.
It seems, though, that the lowest ebb in Agassi’s career came before he met Graf. Yes, fans tend to divide his time in the spotlight into two distinct periods: pre and post-1997. In that year, injury had taken its toll, and a wrist complaint meant the player was only able to feature in 14 tournaments. That left plenty of time on the treatment table – not to mention plenty of time to get into trouble.
Yes, in Agassi’s 2009 autobiography, Open, the star explained how it was around this time that he started using crystal methamphetamine. It was a startling confession – though arguably not as shocking as the secret fans later found out he’d been keeping. But the sporting star also admitted that he’d lied to the Association of Tennis Professional (ATP) in order to avoid a ban from the game. His approach clearly worked.
In Open, Agassi elaborates on the first time he took the drug. He writes about being at home with his assistant, who is called Slim in the book. “Slim is stressed too…He says, ‘You want to get high with me?’ ‘On what?’ ‘Gack.’ ‘What the hell’s gack?’ ‘Crystal meth.’ ‘Why do they call it gack?’ ‘Because that’s the sound you make when you’re high… Make you feel like Superman, dude,’” Agassi recalls the conversation.
Agassi continues, “Slim dumps a small pile of powder on the coffee table. He cuts it, snorts it. He cuts it again. I snort some. I ease back on the couch and consider the Rubicon I’ve just crossed.” These are quite considerable revelations for a then-professional athlete – and a world-famous one at that.
Agassi then goes on to describe the feeling he experienced. “There is a moment of regret, followed by vast sadness. Then comes a tidal wave of euphoria that sweeps away every negative thought in my head. I’ve never felt so alive, so hopeful — and I’ve never felt such energy,” the eight-time Grand Slam champion recalls.
But Agassi was quick to point of the negative side effects, too. “The physical aftermath is hideous,” he writes of crystal meth. “After two days of being high, of not sleeping, I’m an alien. I have the audacity to wonder why I feel so rotten. I’m an athlete, my body should be able to handle this,” he adds.
It begs the question, then, exactly why did the star athlete feel the need to touch the stuff? “Apart from the buzz of getting high, I get an undeniable satisfaction from harming myself and shortening my career,” Agassi writes in Open. It’s another shocking revelation. Why would the champion want to throw his glittering career away like that? Well, it’s all to do with the secret he was harboring.
As you may have expected, towards the end of 1997 Agassi had sunk in the rankings to well outside the top-100 men’s players. Fear not, though: 1998 was a year of redemption. Hard work and a renewed focus saw Agassi climb back up the rankings, and by the following year he had achieved the career Grand Slam. And as his long list of achievements prove, the hugely popular player would have many more great years on the tennis court.
Despite Agassi’s comeback, his off-the-rails episode actually gave fans an insight into how the star was really feeling. Far from just a single moment of lunacy, the decision to take hard drugs was systematic of a far deeper malaise that Agassi was suffering. And the dark truth that was eating away at the tennis champion would haunt him for the entirety of sparkling career.
So, just what was it that Agassi had been hiding all this time? Well, it was nothing salacious about his private life — apart from the drug-taking, of course. Nor was Agassi harboring any dark ambitions to take over the world. It was the relatively simple fact that, despite a near 20-year career in tennis, the champion hated the very sport that made him.
Yes. Agassi hated tennis — and he always had. “I play tennis for a living even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have,” he confesses in Open. It was a remarkable revelation from someone who had garnered so much from the sport: titles, adulation, fame – and money, of course.
We know what you’re thinking: how could Agassi really hate something that he had so obviously devoted his life to? You don’t become a champion — the world number one — without dedication, commitment and thousands of hours practicing, after all. But that, you see, was exactly the point. Agassi was simply sick of the grind. Tennis had been shoved down his throat since before he could remember.
In Open Agassi speaks candidly about the moment he became world number one for the first time back in 1995. “I’ve knocked Pete [Sampras] off the mountaintop. The next person who phones is a reporter. I tell him that I’m happy about the ranking, that it feels good to be the best that I can be,” Agassi recalls. But it wasn’t the truth.
“It’s a lie,” Agassi continues. “This isn’t at all what I feel. It’s what I want to feel. It’s what I expected to feel, what I tell myself to feel. But in fact I feel nothing,” the tennis superstar admitted. It was a moment of shocking realization even for the man himself. And for readers and fans alike, it’s probably the last thing they’d expected him to admit.
But what lay at the heart of Agassi’s disaffection with the game that had made him? It seems that with tennis — despite all of his success — he had just never had a choice. His father made him play. And it’s that lack of autonomy over his decisions that has caused Agassi to hate the very game that has given him so much.
Interestingly, though, Emmanuel “Mike” Agassi — Andre’s father — used to specialize in a different sport altogether. Originally from Iran, Mike boxed for his country in both the 1948 and 1952 Olympics. It was only after that that he settled in the United Stated and became a tennis pro at the Tropicana resort in Las Vegas. He decided to build a court in his backyard to train his children, including youngest son Andre.
Agassi junior was made to live and breath tennis. “He practiced every afternoon, all afternoon. He practiced every weekend, all weekend. He practiced every holiday that I can recall. It was just what they did,” said family friend Perry Rogers. And Bollettieri, Agassi’s former coach, described Mike as “very domineering.” He said, “Tennis. Tennis. Tennis. Tennis. He had the ball machines out in the back. They had the ball machines in every room.”
In Open Agassi gives a glimpse into what life was like as a seven-year-old tennis prodigy under the tutelage of his domineering father. “My father yells everything twice, sometimes three times, sometimes 10. ‘Harder,’ he says, ‘harder. Hit earlier. Damn it Andre, hit earlier, Crowd the ball, crowd the ball.’ Now he’s crowding me. He’s yelling,” Agassi writes. And it’s difficult not to feel sorry for the youngster in this anecdote.
Agassi continues. “Nothing sends my father into a rage like hitting a ball into the net. He foams at the mouth… My arm feels like it’s going to fall off. I want to ask: ‘How much longer, Pops?’ But I don’t ask. I hit as hard as I can, then slightly harder,” the former champion adds.
In a 1995 interview with Sports Illustrated, Agassi hinted at how he was misunderstood by the world at large, which was a further source of frustration. “I don’t think the public has ever had any concept of who I am,” he said. “They see the cars and the plane, and if they don’t try, they stop there,” he added. This was just two years before his career went off the rails.
Agassi became lonely in his world: a world constructed by his father. Speaking years later, even Mike Agassi admitted he was to blame for what occurred. “The real sacrifice was Andre’s childhood,” Agassi senior said, referring to what the family had to give up to get Agassi to the top of the game.
Yet Agassi found his savior in the form of his off-the-court ventures. “I found a life next to tennis. I made a dream come true, to be able to help other people who are not doing so well,” Agassi said of his foundation that helps build schools in Las Vegas.
And Agassi has found happiness in love, too. The sporting star describes his match with the former female number one tennis player as a “wonderful marriage.” And he calls her “the woman who fits me as perfectly as you can fit together perfectly.” Agassi, it seems, has not only found purpose in his life – but also the perfect person to share it with.
Fortunately, Agassi was able to turn it around – and has even been able to reconcile with his father’s actions. He told The Guardian, “My lack of education, a lack of choice, had a huge impact. The question always remains: what might you have done? But I don’t have any deep regrets.”
Agassi also admitted that his father isn’t all bad, despite the image that has been painted of him in the media at large. “When people didn’t have my nuanced take on him they just represented him as abusive,” Agassi told The Guardian. The former tennis star has also described his father as “passionate” as well as “loyal.” Let’s face it, father-son relationships are rarely straightforward.
Agassi also spoke of a conversation that he had with his father while out driving. “If I could do everything all over again I would change only one thing — I wouldn’t let you play tennis,” Mike Agassi told his son. Shocked, Agassi pulled the car over and asked why that was. “Because I’d make you play baseball or golf so you can do it longer and make more money.” And what was Agassi’s reaction? “I got back on the freeway with a chuckle.”
As shocking as it is, Agassi’s secret is one that fans will probably have no trouble getting over. But the same can’t be said for the behavior of disgraced racing cyclist Lance Armstrong. In fact, for some time now, people will have tried to come to terms with his quick and somewhat scandalous downfall. But what really happened? And how does he feel about the events that unfolded? Well, in a 2020 ESPN documentary, the former cycling star finally opened up about the incident which saw him chastised from his profession and the world at large.
Lance Armstrong was once a darling of the sporting community. The professional road-racing cyclist was a bona fide American legend: the man who’d recovered from cancer to conquer the world in one of the toughest endurance sports. But then everything changed.
Many of us will of course be familiar with Armstrong’s story. The Texan established himself as a sporting icon after becoming the first man to win the legendary Tour de France seven consecutive times between 1999 and 2005.
Armstrong was on top of the world when he retired from professional cycling in 2005. And then came the spectacular fall from grace. Years of doping allegations were eventually proven true, and Armstrong admitted his guilt in a notorious interview with Oprah Winfrey. Josh Levs wrote for CNN in 2012, “The epic downfall of cycling’s star – once an idolized icon of millions around the globe – stands out in the history of professional sports.”
We will find out how Armstrong wound up taking performance-enhancing drugs a little later, but first let’s learn a bit more about the man himself. He began life in Texas in 1971 and was always an incredibly driven individual. As a teen he excelled at both swimming and triathlons before turning his attention solely to cycling. Armstrong’s early years on first the amateur and then the professional cycling circuit were marked by notable successes – marking him out as a star for the future.
But one of the defining moments in Armstrong’s life occurred in 1996 when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Doctors also later found tumors in his brain, and the cyclist began chemotherapy – suspending his cycling career for two years. The French company Cofidis canceled the sportsman’s contract, and his life was in serious danger. But Armstrong came through the experience, and before long he was back on his bike.
Armstrong soon began seeing some stunning successes on the road. His first serious taste of glory came in the Tour de France in 1999 – just three years after his diagnosis and treatment for cancer. It was a sporting success that catapulted Armstrong to greatness and saw him eventually become an icon to millions. His success as a cancer survivor was also inspirational, and the rider contributed much to patients though the Livestrong Foundation that he helped set up.
The glory came thick and fast for Armstrong after that, and he embarked on his remarkable run of seven straight Tour de France victories. His famous yellow jersey became synonymous with the man, who firmly established himself as a global sporting superstar and cultural persona. Armstrong’s face adorned magazines and his name was recognized around the world.
Armstrong also benefited from his success with some very lucrative endorsement deals from the likes of Nike, Trek and Oakley. And the cyclist’s personal life reflected his VIP status; he dated a slew of stars and boasted former U.S. President George W. Bush as a personal friend.
Yet the whiff of controversy never truly went away. Armstrong enjoyed phenomenal success and was firmly established as a global sporting role-model. But rumors and whispers persisted that not all was as it seemed. The world of cycling was slowly being uncovered as one in which cheating in the form of doping and highly organized cover-ups were widespread.
Armstrong vehemently denied any wrongdoing – a pretence that he maintained for some time. And the star addressed his doubters while on the podium after his final Tour de France win in 2005. He said, “I’ll say to those who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the sceptics, I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry you can’t dream big and I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.”
But the whispers eventually reached a crescendo. And in an unforgettable interview with Oprah Winfrey in January 2013, Armstrong finally admitted what most of the rest of the world already suspected was true. He came clean about having used performance-enhancing drugs to win his seven tours. Indeed, it was arguably one of the most compelling admissions in sporting history.
“I view this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times,” Armstrong told Winfrey. He was then asked by the presenter whether it would have been possible to win the Tour de France seven times without the drugs. Armstrong admitted it would not have been, adding, “I didn’t invent the culture and I didn’t try to stop the culture… and the sport is now paying the price… and I’m sorry for that.”
“I didn’t have access to anything else that nobody else did,” Armstrong told Winfrey. The Texan also stated that he became entangled in the fairytale story that was his recovery from cancer. He said in the second person, “You [Armstrong] won the disease… it was this mythic perfect [narrative]. And it just wasn’t true.”
For some, Armstrong’s attacks on those who doubted him were worse than the organized cheating. Winfrey asked the former cycling star whether he was a bully, and Armstrong responded, “Yeah, yeah, I was a bully.”
Armstrong went on to describe his actions in a surprisingly frank way. He said, “[I was a bully in] the sense I tried to control the narrative and if I didn’t like what someone said… I tried to control that. [I] said, ‘That’s a lie, they’re liars.”
One victim of Armstrong’s attacks was Emma O’Reilly, a woman who had accused him of taking sports-enhancing drugs in 2004. The woman had worked on Armstrong’s team: the U.S. Postal Service. O’Reilly had been a team masseuse and soigneur for the cyclist and his team for four years from 1996.
Armstrong went on to apologize personally to O’Reilly in the Oprah interview, saying, “She’s one of these people I have to apologise to… who got bullied, who got run over.” But the staffer was not the only one, and Armstrong made a more general appeal for forgiveness. He added, “These were people who believed in me, who believed me, and they have every right to feel betrayed. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to earn back trust and apologize to people.”
After the scandal, Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and received a permanent ban from competitive cycling. He was also dropped by all of his sponsors. Furthermore, the U.S. government took legal action against the former professional athlete. The narrative that Armstrong had built for so long had finally come crashing down around him.
Armstrong soon became a pariah in the world of sport and his name became synonymous with the doping scandal which had led to his demise. And the professional road-racing industry itself has had a long and arduous journey disentangling from the mess of the Armstrong era.
Of course, Armstrong’s story has been one that has fascinated the general public at large – extending beyond cycling and sports fans. Here was a man at the top of his game who was undone by his own unethical actions.
Naturally, there have been a number of documentaries about Armstrong. There was 2013’s The Armstrong Lie, followed by Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story a year later. There was even a dramatization of the affair: 2015’s The Program. And five years after that ESPN produced a documentary detailing all of the events surrounding Armstrong’s rise and fall called Lance.
Much of the ground that the ESPN documentary covers is not new. Armstrong speaks about the cheating and the guilt, but he is then asked directly, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” And the former sportsman’s response is surprising.
“Everyone in the world needs to get this question,” Armstrong answers. Yet the American then softens and addresses what he feels were the worst of his sins among all those that have been uncovered by the media.
Armstrong then goes on to answer the question regarding the worst thing he has ever done. He says, “Probably the way I treated and spoke about Emma O’Reilly. That’s probably the worst.” He then adds, “[Filippo] Simeoni is right up there with [O’Reilly]. To stoop to that level, that’s not what a champion does.” But why does he lament his behavior towards these individuals more than any of his other misdemeanors?
Simeoni is an Italian former racing cyclist and was one of Armstrong’s competitors, while as we mentioned earlier, O’Reilly was a masseuse and personal assistant. And these two players feature strongly in the Armstrong saga. The latter is now able to admit that his past vilification of these particular individuals was totally unwarranted, and the former cyclist tears up when talking about it in the documentary.
For his part, Simeoni had a very public spat with Armstrong. The argument centered around Dr. Michele Ferrari, a controversial cycling team doctor and performance coach who was associated with both men. And in 2002 Simeoni testified that Ferrari had administered performance-enhancing substances.
Armstrong took exception to Simeoni’s actions against Ferrari and labeled his fellow cyclist a liar. And in a famous incident, the American chased the Italian down when the latter was in a breakaway group on the 18th stage of the 2004 Tour de France. After successfully catching his rival, Armstrong was seen making a “mouth zipping” gesture to the camera. According to Cycling News, Simeoni later said of Armstrong’s actions, “He wanted to teach me a lesson, he wanted me to experience a public humiliation.”
As we mentioned earlier, O’Reilly was on Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team for four years from 1996. She was a trusted colleague and therefore likely privy to some of the activities that took place behind the scenes. She later alleged those activities to a reporter who was intent on uncovering the truth about Armstrong.
O’Reilly became one of the most high-profile whistleblowers against Armstrong when she spoke out in 2004. O’Reilly claimed to the journalist David Walsh that she had collected doping products and even helped conceal needle marks on Armstrong’s arms with her make-up.
Armstrong had been fighting hard to clear his name when O’Reilly made the accusations against him. And the rider didn’t take kindly to what his ex-colleague was accusing him of. According to Fox Sports, the cyclist said at the time, “[She’s] P****d. P****d at me, p****d at [U.S. Postal Service team director] Johan [Bruyneel]… [She is] p****d at the team.”
“[O’Reilly] is afraid that we were going to out her… as a whore, or whatever, I don’t know,” Armstrong also commented in the same interview. Separately, he labeled her an alcoholic, in what appeared to be an attempt to discredit his former co-worker.
Armstrong later lamented his words against O’Reilly in his interview on the ESPN documentary. In the show, he says, “To call a woman a whore, it’s hard to be worse than that. I was an idiot and in full attack mode, that’s why I did it. I would have said anything.”
Armstrong elaborates a little more on his behavior in the documentary, saying, “I couldn’t be a different person off the bike. There was no getting in my way, and it worked really well for training and racing. Perfect for that. It just doesn’t work well with another human being who’s not in the race.”
But why did O’Reilly decide to bite the hand that had once fed her? Well, the former staffer answered that question when unveiling her book The Race to Truth: Blowing The Whistle on Lance Armstrong and Cycling’s Doping Culture in 2014. She said, “My motivation to speak out was always to clean up the sport. It wasn’t just about [Armstrong]. It was about something bigger than that. Because riders were dying, their lives were being wrecked. That system needed to change.”
In O’Reilly’s book, she outlines her experience working with the U.S. Postal Team and her actions as a whistleblower. And, remarkably, the publication features an interesting foreword penned by none other than her ex-colleague Lance Armstrong.
Armstrong’s foreword includes a passionate defense of his former colleague’s character. He writes, “I honestly don’t know if I’d have the courage and character to do what [O’Reilly] did. This won’t come as a shock to anyone but this woman is a much better person than I am or ever will be.”
O’Reilly is now a life coach, and she responded to Armstrong’s comments made in the ESPN documentary. She wrote on Twitter, “I’d like say it was nice of Lance Armstrong to once again apologize. But it’s done, it was done between him and I and Johan Bruyneel years ago. I’m really tired of all the haters. Can we just move on and show a bit of compassion to our fellow men?”
It’s fair to say not everyone will find it that easy to forgive Armstrong all of his misdemeanors. Ultimately, the ex-sportsman is a man who will always divide opinion. And – as the ESPN documentary shows – he is still unrepentant on a number of issues.
“It could be worse, I could be Floyd Landis, waking up a piece of s**t every day,” Armstrong says of his ex-teammate, with whom he fell out so spectacularly. The journalist then asks the ex-sportsman if that’s what he really thinks, and Armstrong responds, “That’s what I know, not what I think. I know.”
Armstrong also explains on the documentary that does not regret everything. Indeed, perhaps the most revealing part of the entire documentary is when the former cyclist reasserts a sentiment that he has been consistent with over the years. Armstrong bullishly states, “I’ve told you numerous times, I wouldn’t change a thing.”