Why You Shouldn't Judge Lance Armstrong (and Why You Should)

A new documentary about the cyclist makes the case for moral relativism: Don't be mad that he doped, because everyone doped. Be mad that he said he was the exception.

Sony Pictures Classics

Last January, a few months after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report released a 202-page report that named former cycling champion Lance Armstrong the ringleader in “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program sport has ever seen,” Armstrong sat down for a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey asked him, “Did you feel you were cheating?”

“No,” Armstrong replied.

Winfrey paused. “You didn’t feel you were cheating,” she said.

“No,” Armstrong repeated. The dictionary’s definition of “cheat,” he explained, was to act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage. According to Armstrong, despite years of receiving secret blood transfusions and performance-enhancing drugs, measures like these were so common that he’d never gained an advantage over the rest of the field.

A clip of this exchange plays during Alex Gibney’s new documentary The Armstrong Lie, a withering play-by-play of the dishonest rise and disgraceful fall of Lance Armstrong, who came back from a “50/50” cancer diagnosis to become one of the most dominant athletes the sport had ever seen—while claiming to have done it without the help of PEDs. But the great, unsettling power of Gibney’s film is in its message about the whole Armstrong saga: It truly doesn’t matter so much that Armstrong cheated at cycling—like Armstrong himself says, doping was rampant enough in the Armstrong era that riders did it to keep up, not to get ahead. What matters more is that he cheated at being a hero.

In 2008, back when Armstrong was still more or less a beloved public figure, Gibney set out to make a documentary film about Armstrong’s return to professional cycling after having retired in 2005. He was granted extraordinary access to Armstrong’s life: He interviewed Armstrong frequently, filmed his training and his life at home with his children, and eventually traveled with Armstrong and his team on the 2009 Tour de France—a race Armstrong was sure he could, and would, win. This was going to be the victory that restored good, clean order to the drug-addled sport.

Today, Gibney admits he knew he should have been more skeptical of Armstrong’s all-consuming ambition, given the doping allegations that had quietly begun to pile up. But Gibney, caught up in the emotional momentum of Armstrong’s comeback, went to work making the film anyway. Matt Damon had signed on to provide voiceover narration, and the documentary known as The Road Back was on its way to release. Then, in 2010, Armstrong’s former teammate, the disgraced 2006 Tour de France champion Floyd Landis, told ABC’s Nightline in a prime-time interview that Armstrong had received blood transfusions and used PEDs for much of his career. Gibney immediately put the film on hold; more allegations followed, including the now-infamous report the USADA released in 2012.

At this point, some filmmakers would understandably toss their footage into the garbage and spit on it for good measure. But Gibney instead picked apart his documentary, insisted on one last interview with Armstrong in the spring of 2013, and reassembled all the material with the story of his own imploded documentary at the center. “Lance tried to control my film,” Gibney narrates in what’s now The Armstrong Lie, and adds later, “He’d been lying to me for all of 2009.”

The collapse of the Lance Armstrong cancer-patient-to-superhuman legend, as Gibney presents it, is spellbinding, excruciating, and vindicating to watch. Gibney’s transformation—from embedded Armstrong documentarian to Armstrong fan despite himself to aggrieved Armstrong confidante unsure whether to trust a word he says anymore—lends familiarity, residual fondness, wariness, and sickened scorn to his storytelling. It's a combination instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever felt deeply, personally betrayed. The entire experience, Gibney recalls in the film, helped him grasp why Armstrong kept doping and why fans and even authorities willfully overlooked the warning signs for so long: “So many people wanted to believe,” he says. The finished product is damning, but it’s also sorrowfully empathetic: You shouldn’t have done this, and I hate that I understand why you did.

But Gibney’s turbulent, up-close experience with Armstrong and the troubled sport of cycling make him perhaps the ideal person to argue that Armstrong shouldn’t be vilified for his cheating if his teammates and competitors alike were cheating too. Rather, it’s Armstrong’s willful mass deception of the American public—the untruthful packaging of himself as a hero, Nicholas Brody-style—that the world should find unacceptable. "Don't be mad that he was doping," The Armstrong Lie seems to say, "because everybody was doping, even the good guys. Be mad that he told (and built a legend and a multimillion-dollar brand on) the lie that he was the exception."

For almost as long as distance cycling has existed, Gibney points out, it’s been a sport that required substance use for pain management. In the early days of the Tour de France, riders’ drug of choice was alcohol: They drank beer, wine, and champagne—and water, only when the booze ran out. The film makes clear that for decades, riders have resisted breaking a code of silence about the rampancy of doping. Gibney refers to this pact between competitors as omertà—probably not by coincidence, the same word the mafia has historically used for the practice of not snitching to the authorities.

David Walsh, a sports reporter for the Sunday Times who tirelessly pursued evidence of Armstrong’s cheating (and was even sued by Armstrong for libel in 2004), explains in an interview that by the late 1990s, doping had become so widespread that after a high-profile drug scandal at the 1998 Tour de France, tournament organizers were eager to see a slower race in 1999. It was to be, Walsh says, be a signal of the sport’s renewed commitment to clean riding. But what they got instead was Lance Armstrong’s first Tour de France victory—and the fastest race time ever recorded at the time. It raised some suspicion within the UCI, according to Walsh. But the authorities were hesitant to dull the sudden spike in positive publicity—not to mention cash flow—that Armstrong, who had been bald and emaciated from chemotherapy less than three years before, had brought to the sport.

And perhaps most compellingly, in his 2013 interview, Gibney asks Armstrong, “Did someone make you dope, or did you figure you had to do what you had to do?”

Armstrong is quiet for a moment, then responds, “The latter.”

Indeed, The Armstrong Lie features extensive interviews with Armstrong’s teammates—like George Hincapie, Frankie Andreu, Tyler Hamilton, and Landis—almost all of whom admit to having been bullied and abused by Armstrong, and all of whom also admit to having doped alongside him, unquestioningly. Hincapie echoes Armstrong’s assertion that whether to dope or not wasn’t a consideration—performance-enhancing drugs and blood transfusions were simply what you had to do to keep up with the best riders.

And yet, in Gibney’s film, these are the good guys. Floyd Landis, for instance—a broken, bitter man after winning the Tour de France in 2006 and then being stripped of his title for doping—is portrayed as the Armstrong scandal’s brave, primary whistleblower. After Andreu retired, he and his wife Betsy worked vigilantly, albeit quietly, to expose the truth about Armstrong, testifying against him despite his threats and public belittlement; the Andreus are the film’s beleaguered warriors who finally win their good fight. So for Gibney, it seems, the sin of giving in to the peer pressure of systematic cheating in sports can be erased by honorable individual acts aimed at exposing real-life corruption. Armstrong, unfortunately, hasn’t gotten to that second part.

Armstrong’s 2000 memoir about his battle with cancer was titled It’s Not About the Bike, presumably to emphasize that his real heroism wasn’t in his sports prowess but in his perseverance and integrity. The Armstrong Lie is a pretty apt title for Gibney’s film. But given that the movie also serves as a corrective to the Armstrong story—clarifying that his real villainy wasn’t in sports, but in his cowardice and lack of integrity—perhaps an equally apt title might have been It’s Not About the Doping.