Review: The Armstrong Lie

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My fascination with cycling, like many people, began with Lance Armstrong. A man who won seven Tour de France titles after beating a cancer that nearly killed him. However, unlike most it was not this story that drew me in, instead it was his downfall, this great and untouchable man brought to his knees by a "reasoned decision."

"The UCI will ban Lance Armstrong from cycling and the UCI will strip him of his seven titles. Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling." - Pat McQuaid, President of the UCI 2012

Back in Austin and just layin' around
Bradley Wiggin's victory contributed, the first Brit to win the tour, but it was Armstrong that kept me interested. I followed the proceedings religiously, even following him on twitter - seeing his defiant layin' around tweet - until the interview when he revealed all. One question stood out to me, how no one could have known, it seemed so obvious, the evidence had been in plain sight for years. Alex Gibney's The Armstrong Lie tackles this question. 

“If you look at the books and you look at the records, he won seven Tours in a period where everybody thought, where everybody was dirty. If I win again, they're not going to - they can't say that. They cannot. Well, you can, but there'd be a few dickheads who'd say that, trust me, but… no way.” – Lance Armstrong 2009

Gibney began following Armstrong's comeback year in 2009. He was given unprecedented access to the cyclist - filming his drug tests, training regimes and even his family life in the run up to the 2009 tour. Initially, Gibney wished to explore why Armstrong came back and what he is out to prove, but following the federal investigation into doping Gibney sat on the footage and waited. By 2013, Armstrong's lie was outed; he was disgraced with his reputation in tatters, and so Gibney organised one more interview to set the record straight.

“Lance tried to dominate my film too. He had lied to me, straight to my face, all throughout 2009. When the truth came out I told him he owed me an explanation on camera”- Alex Gibney

In the documentary Gibney presents his own personal story, a story of how he was drawn in to the lie. He uses interviews with Armstrong from his comeback years and following the Oprah interview. Interviews with colleagues and journalists are interspersed throughout, fellow teammates including Frankie Andreu and George Hincapie, and long-time critics like David Walsh.

The first part discusses the history of doping in cycling from alcohol; the first performance enhancing drug (PED), to the emergence of EPO and blood transfusions, before moving on to Armstrong, his cancer battle, recovery, his tour wins and elevation to superstardom. It discusses his charity and work to raise cancer awareness, and importantly it presents his doping denials and the ruthless dismantling and discrediting of his opponents.
"If Lance is clean, it's the greatest comeback in the history of sports, if he isn't, it would be the greatest fraud." – Greg LeMond, 1st American Winner of the Tour de France 2001

“Greg [LeMond], who I know has serious drinking and drug problems, is, was clearly intoxicated.” – Lance Armstrong 2005

In the second part Gibney charts Armstrong's comeback year, from the announcement, to his ride at the Giro d'Italia and finally his Tour. During this Gibney manages to do something extraordinary, he makes you believe the lie. You see Armstrong's confidence that he can win an eighth tour, his sadness when he's beaten in the first stage and his acceptance that he isn't good enough when Alberto Contador (rival, teammate and fellow drug cheat) takes him on and wins.

“I don't blame Contador one bit. He didn't trust anybody on that team, and he wanted to make sure that he had that yellow jersey firmly on his shoulders. He learned this from Lance. When you have a chance to seize the yellow jersey, and take time out of your opponents, you do it. Alberto was doing textbook Lance Armstrong, it just backfired on Lance.” – Frankie Andreu, Armstrong's former teammate 2013

Armstrong’s comeback story comes to a head on Mt Ventoux, a legend of the Tour de France - the mountain Froome climbed solo in last year’s race - and one that had always defeated Lance. Armstrong needs to finish with his rivals to secure a podium position and I, along with Gibney, am there cheering him on, hoping he can do it...and he does. Gibney cites this as the point where he believed the lie completely, and I wanted to believe it too, despite all I knew. You're almost pleased when you see on the podium, he did it.

Gibney sets you up and then knocks you down, showing you how he felt when the lie came crashing down. Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton speak out, the US government goes after him, and then finally USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) - we all know what happened next. The rug is pulled from under our feet, much like it was for Gibney, he'd been lied to constantly just like the whole world. He reveals that Armstrong may have transfused blood before his triumph on Mt Ventoux, the final piece of hope snatched away. 

OPRAH: And your comeback, do you regret now coming back?

LANCE: I do. We wouldn't be sitting here if I didn't come back.

In the post-Oprah interview Armstrong is still defiant, he rejects that he was ever offered a deal by USADA, he rejects that he doped in his comeback and most poignantly he rejects that history will see him as a cheat - he is still the winner of seven Tour de France titles. Gibney finds it difficult to sympathise, he had been lied to before why not again? But he still finds it difficult to reject completely, Gibney still wants to believe in the Armstrong lie. 

You know, at some point people will say, "OK, here's what happened." And then... judge for themselves. I mean, I don't know what people will think in 20, 30, 40, 50 years. Is the record book still going to be blank for seven years, I guess it... I guess it will be, I don't know. Or do people go... they look at this thing in, in the context that it is and say, "Well… yeah…he won the Tour de France seven times." – Lance Armstrong 2013

This documentary answers my initial question, how could people not see the evidence? The answer, Armstrong himself, he creates a story; a cancer survivor becomes one history’s greatest athletes whilst destroying those who dispute it. Gibney's personal story is incredibly effective and will be seen as a definitive documentary on the subject - how history’s greatest cheat deceived the entire world and almost got away with it.

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