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Last month I discussed Alex Gibney’s documentary The Armstrong Lie on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, and because I never did get to make my main point, I meant to write in more detail then. As is common with documentaries, the film doesn’t seem to have spent a lot of time on a lot of cinema screens, which is a shame, because its an entertaining and involving story, with a compelling protagonist who can bend the audience just as surely as he bent the truth.
The important thing about The Armstrong Lie is its title, which was borrowed from the French sports newspaper L’Equipe, long-time sponsors of the Tour De France. It is not The Armstrong Cheat, because the ‘lie’ isn’t the fact that Armstrong was cheating. The lie is rather the persona Lance Armstrong built up and sold to the world—the cancer survivor who won seven consecutive Tours, who used his success to fuel a huge enterprise centered on his Livestrong cancer charity. He was the ultimate underdog, an American dominating an event only one other American had ever won, racing for a team, US Postal Service, with minimal funding and facilities. It was a lie the world not only believed, but wanted to believe.

Gibney came to the story in 2009, given access to film a documentary about Armstrong’s ill-fated 2009 comeback. He seems to have thought of it, at least partially, in terms of sporting economics. Early on in the film he mentions that most racers come from modest, working class backgrounds, and later in the film he details the financial bonanza Armstong generated, and pointed shows him on a private jet reading the marketing section of the Wall Street Journal, wearing a silly hat the may remind you how you can’t ever totally lose your roots. But it’s an observation that doesn’t really go anywhere—echoes of the old Olympian amateur ideal are very faint indeed.

That’s because the history of cycling in general, and the Tour in particular, is impossible to tell without reference to performance-enhancing drugs. Going back to the early days, where cyclists took strychnine, nitroglycerine, and cocaine; drank wine or beer to help kill the pain. It’s an event that tests human endurance beyond its normal limits, and each time a ‘scandal’ arises, it is pushed under the carpet until the next bio-chemical advance comes along.
What’s fascinating about Armstrong, and his association with the notorious Italian Dr. Michele Ferrari is the way the cyclist’s cancer opened the door to his use of PEDs. Because his muscles had been broken down completely during his illness, Ferrari was able to bio-engineer a new Armstrong—and on a level playing field he might well have been just as unbeatable as he was anyway. This is not to justify his elaborate cheating, merely to point out that his feeling, which appears quite honest when he answers Oprah Winfrey’s question, that he didn’t ‘cheat’, in the sense of gain an ‘unfair advantage’ over his competitors, is true. Look at the men who stood on the podium with Armstrong in his seven tour wins and you’ll find one who hasn’t either been caught or confessed to cheating.
As Gibney details Armstrong’s history, and as he ruthlessly fights to protect his lie, you get a convincing picture of a sociopath, a bully, someone who is aware of his prowress and his appeal, and uses it against his critics. The pathos of his teammate George Hincapie, who can’t help but protect Armstrong even after he’s confessed, pointed fingers, and been cast into the metaphorical wilderness, is sad. Indeed, by the time of his comeback it appeared as if everyone on the tour, and everyone on his teams, had been cheating: except Armstrong
Which makes his decision to come back even more incomprehensible. And the wonder of Gibney’s film is that, as he tracks Armstrong on that comeback Tour, he, and as a result we, actually find ourselves rooting for him to succeed. Having seen everything, knowing in retrospect the lies are lies, understanding the unpalatable nature of his personality, we cannot resist hoping Armstrong reaches the podium—it’s as much against the odds as his first Tour win. Thus, when he’s found to have blood-doped (removed blood before the race, and transfused it back into his body before the final stage) and the elaborate facade of lie starts to fall apart, we find ourselves doubly disappointed.
As is Gibey. In one sense, the Armstrong Lie is the one he fed Gibney, the one an experienced documentary maker found himself believing, and it’s Gibney’s talent that passes that sense of disappointment on to us. That, in the end, is the enthralling point of this film. Armstrong’s attempt to come back, to win a Tour at nearly 40, and win it ‘clean’ is the most incredible act of hubris, one almost unmatched in sport, and hardly matched outside it. Armstrong alone among the major racers was still publicly clean. He could have stayed retired and kept his seven titles, and every time someone testified they’d helped him or seen him use drugs, he could have continued to beat them down.
It is the stuff of classic tragedy—whom the Gods would destroy they make stronger with Epo, or HGH, or steroids. And believing he could get away with it was the greatest Armstrong lie.