In 2008, Academy Award® winning filmmaker Alex Gibney set out to make a documentary about Lance Armstrong’s comeback to the world of competitive cycling. But after Armstrong’s confession to using performance enhancing drugs in early 2013, the film instead emerges as a riveting insider’s view, chronicling the collapse of one of the greatest sporting legends of our time.
COULD Lance Armstrong be any more delusional?
The world’s most famous drug cheat still thinks people should remember him as a seven-time Tour de France champion instead of a sporting disgrace.
“I don’t know what people in 20, 30, 40 years will think,” Armstrong says. “I mean, is the record book still going to be blank for seven years? I guess it will be, I don’t know. Or will people look at this thing in the context that it is and say, ‘Yeah, he won the Tour de France seven times?’”
Get that? Armstrong reckons if you look at those years and years and years of systematic doping and vicious bullying “in context”, you’ll decide his “victories” should actually count.
Seriously, what has this guy been on? Oh … right. Testosterone, EPO, cortisone, human growth hormone … you get the idea.
Armstrong’s latest comments come courtesy of a documentary called
The Armstrong Lie
, which will be released in select Australian cinemas on Thursday.
The man behind the film, Academy Award-winner Alex Gibney, has made blockbuster documentaries on WikiLeaks and Enron in the past. The Armstrong Lie was originally supposed to chronicle its subject’s glorious return to cycling in 2009, but after Armstrong’s confession to Oprah Winfrey last year, the film had to be rewritten.
The final product is a brutally comprehensive summary of the Lance Armstrong saga, with a few exclusive interviews thrown in as well.
“This is not a story about doping, it’s a story about power,” author Daniel Coyle tells the camera. “And the story became hanging onto that power.”
Coyle recalls Armstrong’s speech on the podium in Paris after winning his seventh Tour de France in 2005.
“The last thing I’ll say to the people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the sceptics — I’m sorry for you,” Armstrong said back then. “I’m sorry that you can’t dream big. I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.”
Coyle asks: “Why couldn’t he have just said thank you? That wasn’t enough. He had to dominate.”
That’s the recurring motif of Armstrong’s career. It’s the reason he doped, and it’s the reason he returned to cycling in 2009. He needed to dominate one last time, to spite his doubters.
“He wanted to come back, prove a point, send a message,” says George Hincapie, Armstrong’s former teammate. Armstrong himself made it even plainer in an interview with Gibney before the 2009 Tour de France. He wanted to shut up the critics who had accused him of doping.
“If I win again they can’t say that,” he said. “They cannot.”
Armstrong didn’t win again, although he did sneak on to the podium in third place. In his mind, that was good enough.
“I came in here and wanted to win. I can stand on the third step and still say I won,” he told Gibney at the time. Then he added this gem, without a hint of irony or self-awareness.
“I think I’ve answered a lot of questions about my past.”
The only thing more brazen than Armstrong’s belief in his own greatness was the brutal manner in which he attacked anyone who threatened to expose the lie. Nobody is more familiar with that brutality than Frankie and Betsy Andreu, who testified against Armstrong under oath in 2006, saying they’d overheard him describing his doping regime for a doctor. The bigshot cyclist attacked the couple for years afterwards, effectively ostracising them from the sport.
“If you crossed him, you were doomed,” Frankie tells Gibney.
“Lance wanted to humiliate Frankie, and he wanted to get back at me,” says Betsy. “The doping is bad, but Lance’s abuse of power was worse.”
How on Earth did Armstrong rationalise that behaviour?
“I’m a fighter. I grew up a fighter,” he tells Gibney. “I like to win, but more than anything I can’t stand the thought of losing because to me that equals death.
“The denials became more defiant and the arguments became more heated.
“I was prepared to say anything … I certainly was very confident that I would never be caught.”
If he’d stayed away from cycling in 2009, Armstrong may never have been caught. But the man’s near-pathological need to dominate dragged him back, and four years later he was confessing to Oprah. Kind of.
In typically stubborn, vindictive fashion, Armstrong didn’t confess to everything. He still refused to acknowledge that Frankie and Betsy Andreu were telling the truth in 2006. That would mean losing completely, which is something Lance Armstrong has never been able to do.
“I know what I know,” he tells Gibney. “I know what it took to win those Tours.
“I didn’t live a lot of lies. But I lived one big one,” he says. “The only person that can actually start to let people understand what the true narrative is, is me.”
Armstrong can delude himself for as long as he likes, but when we check the record book in 40 years, those seven spaces will still be blank.
The Armstrong Lie opens on Thursday, March 13.