‘Le Mesonge Armstrong’, screamed the headline. It was 23rd August 2005 and the media was gleefully trumpeting the story it had long been craving. Lance Armstrong was a cheat claimed L’Equipe and it had the proof, at long last, to destroy him.
He had just won his seventh successive Tour de France, a remarkable run which served as the basis of a legend; reinforced by his status as the survivor of a terrifyingly aggressive form of cancer. In spite of this, the American’s brash, relentless pursuit of a prize regarded by Europeans as their own made him deeply unpopular. The French press in particular despised him.
Rumours swirled for years that Armstrong was availing of performance enhancing drugs and techniques. He, his proxies and his advocates countered these with characteristic fervour, dismissing them as the rantings of an embittered European media machine. By the end of 2005, and in the continued absence of any sound evidence to the contrary, he retired.
The French didn’t care about these protestations. The French were right.
Armstrong is indeed a fraud and his place at the head of an intricate enhancement operation — the most efficient doping system in the history of sport — is particularly distressing given the aura of hopeful invincibility that had built up around him. That personal tale was as compelling as anything else in sport and it is the collapse of this facade that sits so uncomfortably at the heart of Alex Gibney’s fascinating take on the arrogance of power.
For Armstrong was powerful, within cycling and without. His awesome commercial appeal, built on the back of those apparently incredible accomplishments, afforded him a truly startling level of influence. The cancer — and its scorched-earth treatment —focused his mind and transformed his body. It created an athletic machine capable of jaw-dropping feats of aerobic endurance. Having faced his own mortality, the famous will to succeed would pay little heed to sporting fairness. ‘I like to win’ he says, ‘but more than anything I can’t stand to lose because, to me, losing equals death.’ The epic triumphs were nothing more than lies. On all this Gibney shines a light, picking apart the timeline of Armstrong’s increasingly complex methods for ensuring victory.
That he finally came clean in an exclusive interview with Oprah Winfrey speaks to how deeply his celebrity is ingrained in the American psyche. Winfrey is not renowned for her hard-hitting journalism, but after years of untruths his conspiracy was laid bare by a series of simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions.
The film is bookended by a brief interview in the hours following this confession. Subsequent to that exchange, he agreed to subject himself to a lengthier examination by Gibney. The frank, but slightly unapologetic tone of his discussion is a change at least from the vicious manner in which he enforced his great charade.
In this respect, Gibney inserts himself into the narrative. The filmmaker was initially engaged by Armstrong to document his 2009 comeback — an event precipitating a renewed determination by his enemies (which may, or may not, include the governing bodies of world cycling) to find the smoking gun. Gibney readily admits to being caught up in the euphoria that accompanied his subject’s return. ‘I loved the beautiful lie over the bitter truth’ he says in narration. What was initially destined to be a puff piece faltered as the scandal broke. Feeling used and exploited, Gibney shelved the project. Four years later, he resurrected his footage to further detail the extent of the fallout.
His one-on-one with the former champion, that mythical status a forgotten detail, is as important as the interviews with former teammates, some more loyal than others. The picture painted is both fascinating and occasionally terrifying. The scale of Armstrong’s deception, of its stunning egotism, was matched by the lengths to which he was prepared to go to protect the team’s omerta. Even in disgrace, his interaction with Gibney represents a continued attempt to control the message with disarming honesty.
Corruption of goodness was central to Gibney’s previous films, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. Yet this documentary also presents a truly spectacular illustration of the brutally competitive world that is professional cycling. These are the hardiest athletes on the planet, possessed of an almost boundless facility to push beyond the ceiling of human endurance. They do so in locations likely to make the rest of us wilt. From the searing heat of the Pyrenees to the sheer slopes of the Alps, Armstrong and his peers battle against the possible destruction of their own bodies. In such an arena, performance enhancement appears to be rife, if not wholly necessary. Thus, the overriding question which emerges is: if everyone is doping, is it really cheating? At worst, one senses, Armstrong believes himself guilty of extreme deviousness. The race to gain a medical edge was as hectic as anything on the road.
Lance Armstrong, however, is not quite the monster that his myriad failings would suggest. The Livestrong Foundation, inspired by his own original battle against cancer, is a leading global charity dedicated to supporting sufferers and their families. Armstrong is its figurehead, a survivor who proudly bears the scars of his trauma. That much is genuine. So too is the obvious love of his craft. Retired and rich, his reputation essentially unsullied, Armstrong should have been enjoying life in 2009. Instead his deep desire to prove himself — to do so cleanly, perhaps — rendered his comeback inevitable. The sight of him throwing his ageing, spartan frame into the gruelling preparations for another Tour is nothing if not impressive.
By its conclusion The Armstrong Lie remains cloaked in ambiguity. Did Armstrong deceive us all? Yes he did. Is he sorry? That answer is less clear.
An edited version of this article was first published here.