Entertainment » Movies

The Armstrong Lie

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Nov 12, 2013
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Lance Armstrong in Alex Gibney’s documentary ’The Armstrong Lie’
Lance Armstrong in Alex Gibney’s documentary ’The Armstrong Lie’  

In 2009, when Lance Armstrong planned a comeback after his historic streak, winning the Tour de France seven times, documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney began work on a project to record what Armstrong hoped would be an eighth win -- a victory that would silence the athlete’s critics and detractors once and for all. What Gibney finally ended up with was a quite different film by the title "The Armstrong Lie."

Armstrong had been dogged for years by accusations of doping. With the exception of one occasion, he had always tested clean for known performance enhancers. That single occasion when his test results were questionable was explained away as a matter of Armstrong having used a cream for saddle sores that contained minute traces of the substance in question, a steroid.

Armstrong swore, up and down, in the press, in his two memoirs, and in television ads, that he had never used any performance enhancing drugs. He took public exception to suggestions that the grueling treatment he endured to overcome testicular cancer had somehow constituted a form of doping (or that’s how he spun the story, anyway). In a very literal way, through the means of mass media, Armstrong looked the world in the eye and, with a straight face, told one whopper of a lie -- and he told it over and over again.

There were those who knew better, or thought they had good cause to know better, including teammates, sports pros, journalists, and (it’s suggested in Gibney’s film) maybe even then-head of the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), Hein Verbruggen -- and certainly the man who fine-tuned the regimen of diet, exercise, and illicit substances used by a number of athletes in the cycling world, including Armstrong, Michele Ferrari.

Those who spoke out against Armstrong (including former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy, who were compelled to testify against Armstrong at one point in the course of an investigation) were, we are told, met by the full force of Armstrong’s might as a celebrity. (What we’re told, really, is that Armstrong set out to "crush" people.)

Gibney’s original documentary idea seemed a good one for a while, as Armstrong took third place in 2009, amid daily postings of his blood work results that proved he was riding clean, and surrounded by drama stemming from a rivalry with a young-gun teammate. (That teammate was later busted for doping.) But soon after, it all started to unravel -- and eventually, Armstrong appeared on TV in an interview with Oprah Winfrey to confess his wrongdoing.

Yes, Armtstrong doped. He doped for years and years. He doped all during his reign as the cancer survivor who dominated the Tour for seven consecutive wins. On that point, everyone in the documentary Gibny ended up making -- so very different from the one he set out to make -- agrees, even Armstrong, who speaks frankly with Gibney about it.

But while Armstrong maintains that his victories were genuine (in the sense that "everyone" was doping in the Tour, and therefore the playing field was level), others maintain that his cardinal sin was not doping at all but rather his abuse of his power, and the "vicious" ways in which he went after people.

In the end, what are we to think of Armstrong’s confession, his career, and his prospects for the future? As far as he’s fallen, he remains a man who has accomplished great things; as much as he has disappointed fans of the sport, and fans of the man himself, he’s also made a huge difference in the lives of many people facing cancer. Armstrong insists that he was riding completely clean in 2009, though there is compelling evidence to suggest that he resorted to a blood transfusion, forbidden by the rules, that put more red blood cells into his system at a crucial juncture in the ride. After having found it so easy, and so necessary, to lie before, is the now-penitent Armstrong simply lying once more? Is he even penitent? He declares himself "embarrassed" and "humiliated," but somehow he never really seems to apologize. His explanations come back, again and again, to his underling conviction that he truly is a champion, and maybe he is.

But as Andreu says, though Armstrong was playing by "the rules of the road," he was not playing by the rules of the game -- and one comes away with a feeling that Armstrong broke other rules, too; unwritten rules about sportsmanship. The public may decry him for his lies, but what might really humiliate Armstrong, if he is humiliated, is how his victories have been turned into defeat.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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