From hero to zero

Secrets and lies: (from left) Lance Armstrong, director Alex Gibney and director of photography Maryse Alberti filming The Armstrong Lie. Photo: SuppliedMore on The Armstrong LieMovie session timesFull movies coverage

For a while, it must have seemed quite a ride. Lance Armstrong was not only the most famous cyclist in the world – having beaten the Europeans at their own game to win seven Tour de France yellow jerseys between 1999 and 2005 – but he did so after enduring treatment for testicular cancer that had spread through his body to his brain. Before his illness, he had never finished a Tour de France. Now, having beaten death, he was among the greatest.

Inevitably, allegations of doping trailed him like confetti but – even when every other cyclist who had shared a podium with him had been sprung taking either growth hormones, cortisone, a red blood-cell stimulant or testosterone – Armstrong always came out of tests clean. As he said in 2005, after winning the Tour with the fastest recorded average pace in the race’s history, he was the most tested athlete in the world.

It was an excellent – and perhaps prudent – moment to announce he would retire. Except Armstrong discovered he couldn’t bear retirement. Less than four years later he was back, declaring his determination to enter the 2009 Tour de France and recover the yellow jersey. By this stage, however, he was about to turn 38. There seemed no way he could win without drugs. There was also no way he would not be found out.

No fewer than three feature films about Armstrong’s epic fall from grace are now in the works. Ben Foster is slated to play the Texan for director Stephen Frears, with Bradley Cooper the most likely casting for Jay Roach’s version and, as yet, no more than a script in the works for director J.J. Abrams. Brilliance, power and shame: Armstrong’s story is full of compelling narrative ingredients. In the meantime, however, there is The Armstrong Lie, a long and meticulous meditation on the cyclist and his doomed career by prolific documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney.

Gibney started his film in 2008, just as Armstrong announced his return. He was intrigued by Armstrong – with his will to win and need to be celebrated for winning – as a great documentary subject. At the same time, Gibney admits he was as caught up in the romance of this comeback as anyone. He wanted Armstrong to win that Tour. He wanted what Armstrong tells the camera has to be the film’s happy ending. Except it was Armstrong who needed that ending; documentaries don’t have to be happy.

Gibney did not make the film he expected to make and, given he was able to interview Armstrong only once, and briefly, after he admitted doping, the new version isn’t half as tough as one might expect of a director renowned for warts-and-all expose´s. Even so, it is a fine portrait of delusion and disgrace.

The Armstrong Lie was a phrase coined in French by the sports newspaper L’Equipe which covers cycling in forensic detail. A little over a month after the 2005 Tour de France finished, it published a story saying that frozen samples of Armstrong’s urine taken during the 1999 Tour had been recently tested and found to contain the banned substance EPO. The suggestion was that all Armstrong’s Tour victories were achieved on drugs.

At that stage, Armstrong’s life seemed charmed. Even the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s governing body, decided it was the laboratory that required investigation and successfully demanded that Armstrong’s accusers apologise to him. Nevertheless, he chose that moment to announce he was retiring.

The star’s comeback was difficult; he claimed to be – and still maintains he was – doing it clean. Throughout 2008 he competed in races as practice runs for the Tour de France; his performances were disappointing. Then it was 2009 and the Tour, with Gibney and his crew in tow. For the first few days Armstrong was showing signs of intense strain, as if he were struggling to keep up. Yet somehow, on the hardest day of all, Armstrong had a burst of his old strength, stayed at the front of the pack and ended the day looking bright. Unusually, a blood test was taken as he got off his bike. The results proved his undoing.

Armstrong came under a US federal investigation for doping. He denied all allegations and continued to compete, but bowed to the inevitable by retiring in 2011. In August 2012, the US Anti-Doping Agency declared he had been banned for life from competing not just in cycling, but any sport. His titles were stripped from him.

As his subject entered a snarl of legal hearings, Gibney set aside his documentary and its heroic narrative. He took it up again once the judgment had been delivered, but the film he would now make would be very different. For one thing, Armstrong had decided to come clean. In January 2013, he entered that great modern confessional: The Oprah Winfrey Show. As Gibney says, the first few minutes of the interview are electrifying as Oprah demands Armstrong answer ”yes” or ”no” to a series of bald questions. Did he take illegal substances? Did he lie? Yes, yes. There, he’s said it. Armstrong’s direct gaze at his famous inquisitor doesn’t waver – but then, it never did.

”Here’s the thing,” says Gibney, who has the bluff manner of an old-school journo. ”Even when I started the project, I knew the stories and suspicions about Armstrong doping; I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. What struck me, though, only when all the detail started to come out, was that maybe I was part of a PR job. That I was part of the lie. And that pissed me off, that I’d been used.”

But that was the thing about Armstrong: an unshakeable conviction in himself that he could persuade others to share.

Up close, of course, he is rather different. During his racing career, Armstrong was a bully who made a lot of enemies. A brief clip in The Armstrong Lie that shows him sharing a podium with Bill Clinton is worthy of a moment’s reflection, says Gibney. ”There they are, two big liars, but Clinton is loved. Armstrong was never loved. Armstrong was feared. What made him great on the bike was his cruelty, his ability not to care about other people, in fact viciously to go after them.”

Gibney’s previous documentary subjects include the torturers at Abu Ghraib, the people who made money out of nothing at Enron, and Wikileaks’ Julian Assange. He frequently draws parallels between them, disparate as they are. Armstrong was like Assange, he says, in that they were both ”afflicted with ‘noble cause corruption’. They believe that if they are doing something for good, they are entitled to be a little bit nasty. So I think Armstrong came to have a pleasure in lying. It was almost a skill he developed.”

There is no question Armstrong considers himself a scapegoat. ”And I think he is right to some extent,” says Gibney. ”And wrong to some extent. I think he’s right in this sense: all the top riders were clearly doping so, in that context, he was the best athlete in a dirty era. What he doesn’t get is that it’s not fair to say it was a level playing field.

”Because he had such a powerful story and because he meant so much financially to cycling, maybe the officials looked the other way when there were likely suspicions of doping. Maybe because he has so many resources, he can hire the best doctor. So then it’s not a level playing field. It’s not even so much about doping. It’s about power.”

The Armstrong Lie

Genre Documentary

Buzz A forensic analysis of Armstrong’s lies that should leave any remaining fans weeping in the aisles

Stars Lance Armstrong, Betsy Andreu, Reed Albergotti

Director Alex Gibney

Released Out now, rated M