On July 25th 2005, Lance Armstrong retired from cycling. He’d just won his seventh straight Tour de France, recording an average speed of 41.7km/h, the highest pace in Tour history.
If he’d left it there and stayed retired, it’s thought by many, he would probably have got away with it. The retrospective investigations which culminated in his pay-per-view doping confession with Oprah might never have happened.
But in September 2008, at 37, he announced he would compete again in the 2009 Tour de France. Which is when documentary-maker Alex Gibney became involved. Gibney, an oscar-winning investigative filmmaker (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks) with a specialism in exposing the mechanics of power and corruption, was given unprecedented access to the Armstrong inner circle in order to make Lance’s comeback film The Road Back.
But while Gibney was in the editing room, Armstrong’s house of cards began to crumble, and a very different film, The Armstrong Lie, out this week, emerged. While not adding any particularly new evidence to the Armstrong scandal, to anyone fascinated in how one of the biggest con tricks in sport was created and sustained, it's essential viewing.
Esquire: You’ve said your original motivation to make the documentary was as a straightforward sports film and there’s obviously a great comeback story here, but was there any sense that you were sniffing something bigger?
Alex Gibney: Yeah, I mean you’d have to be blind not to have known about accusations of doping with Lance Armstrong. Even I, who hadn’t followed the sport at all, knew something about that. So, you know, right from the start I told the producer I can’t ignore this, and he said, You know ‘don’t ignore it’. As part of the 2009 film I talked to David Walsh [Sunday Times journalist who had been outspoken in his accuastions against Armstrong since 1999], I talked to Simeoni [Italian cyclist engaged in a long-term feud with Armstrong], and I talked to Ferrari [controversial doctor who Lance had used throughout his peak]. And the only reason I talked to any of them, with the possible exception of Ferrari, was to talk about doping.
ESQ: Why do you think Lance let you into the inner circle?
AG: I think the motivation was ‘yeah, fine ask us anything’. Right. ‘We’re proving that we’ve nothing to hide’.
ESQ: Do you think they wanted this comeback to be about the fact that this one was clean in order to hide the past?
AG: Yes, I do think that. That’s my view. I mean Lance never talked about it but I think that's what it was about.
ESQ: What was Lance's on-the-record reason for coming back?
AG: It was about cancer, but it was also that he thought he could come back, he thought it’d be a good story, and that he could beat these guys. He says in the film, which is very interesting and it’s one of those things where somebody says something in an interview and you don’t take note until later. He said ‘I intended to do it clean’. He didn’t say ‘I did it clean’. That’s what he says. If you were to ask me what I think the truth is, I would say that’s the truth; that he intended to do it clean, but he had an insurance blood bag in the bus, just in case.
ESQ: Do you think that there’s any sense at all that he expected, even wanted, to get caught?
AG: I think it was weirder than that. I’m not sure that he wanted to get caught, but I think it was hubris. And there’s another answer that I found staggering. I said: ‘were you afraid that by coming back the doubts would return?' And he said: ‘of course’. He didn’t say 'yes' he says ‘of course’. Well, ok, so why did you do it then? I talked to everybody involved in the case, and it’s almost certain that he’d still have his titles if he didn’t come back in 2009. He just stirred the nest.
ESQ: Did he accept that in your final interview with him?
AG: Well he says it to Oprah too: ‘If I hadn’t come back we wouldn’t be sitting here’.
ESQ: Given the time you spent with Lance, what qualities did you see in him that could mastermind this huge charade?
AG: Well because he’s a great storyteller, and he’s a very charismatic guy. What’s interesting about 1999, and we spent a good bit of time on it in the film, is that he learns the program, he learns the doping program. But beyond that he learns the PR program. The first few interviews he gives [when winning the Tour de France] he's like ‘gosh, gee, this is amazing’. But slowly, but surely, the power of his story takes over, and he begins to understand the power of his own story and he begins to trade on it. You know, in subsequent tours he’d be more confident in terms of being able to lay that out.
ESQ: So he becomes almost a master of managing the lie.
AG: Yeah, correct.
ESQ: There’s a great line in the film: ‘this isn’t about doping, it’s about power’. Did you get a sense from doing this story that almost the managing of the lie was as addictive as winning the title and being back?
AG: I think he was entranced by that, seduced by that - it was almost a game to him. Usually good liars are people who believe the lie in some way, and I think that the rectitude that he felt as a kind of cancer cure advocate gave him license to do that.
For what he did, he also needed to marshal an emotional power, and that emotional power has to feel righteous. And that righteousness comes from defending cancer survivors around the world.
ESQ: Do you think with Livestrong, there’s that possibility it helps to assuage his guilt?
AG: Honestly, the Livestrong thing is something he believed in. He went through it, he almost died, and why wouldn’t he have a foundation to help battle the cancer. Even if it wasn’t one of the world’s most admirable foundations in terms of keeping its overheads low, it wasn’t the worst and they did give hundreds of millions of dollars to supporting cancer victims.
ESQ: Was this a guy who was having sleepless nights and was angsty about the lie?
AG: No I don’t think he was angsty at all, I think he slept like a baby. He says it literally, that at the time he didn’t lose any sleep over it. He literally says that, so yeah I don’t think he did.
I think for him it was just that’s what winning at all costs means – he saw it in pretty binary terms. You know, ‘everyone’s doping so I have two choices; be clean and lose, or dope and maybe win – I choose dope’. And it was that simple for him, it was very pragmatic.
ESQ: If you do it, do it as hard as you possibly can.
AG: Yep. That’s kind of like the Colin Powell theory. I you’re going to attack, attack with everything you’ve got. Diet, training, drugs; the works.
WH: When you see the famous photo Lance tweeted of himself on the sofa with his 7 Tour de France jerseys, he clearly still thinks he was the best at winning at that time. Do you think that’s a fair argument and that he deserves some credit for that?
AG: I think he does. And frankly I think the idea of expunging him from the record books is silly. It’s like Robespierre after the Revolution, and it also allows everybody involved to absolve any sense of responsibility. Having said that, it wasn’t a level playing field, and it wasn’t a level playing field in this sense because he had such an outside influence in the sport. The organizing body of the sport cut him so much slack and I suspect in the days ahead we may yet find out about how much slack they cut him. But even after he retired, the ability to massage his reputation and keep it clean for the sake of the sport because he was bigger than the sport; that’s where he had an advantage that nobody else had.
ESQ: He had the personality to thrive in that environment, he had the connections, he had the cancer experience, he had a story such that nobody wanted him to be exposed as a cheat because he was bringing money to the sport.
AG: Well imagine if he’d won the Tour in 1999 but instead of being a cancer survivor, that he was, you know, a former convicted drug addict who didn’t look very good, didn’t speak very well and was kind of generally nasty to people. When he wins standing up there, he’s giving everybody the finger. How hard do you think they would have investigated him then? Pretty hard I think.
ESQ: You kind of hint in the film that you were more pissed off that he lied to you, that the lying was worse than the doping. Are the two not so connected that they are essentially the same?
AG: They are in a sense, but Lance is unusual in that he went around saying ‘how dare you say that I, as a cancer survivor, cheated’. Do you know what I mean? He made the lie so big, he made so many people complicit in that lie, and also he used his fundamental mythic story not only to enrich himself by creating this lie, but also going after people who were trying to tell the truth. To me that’s much worse than the doping.
The Armstrong Lie is out in cinemas on Friday January 31