NEW YORK -- It was a tale too beautiful, too magical. And when that’s the case, the natural tendency is to believe it’s true, because we want to believe it’s true. Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor, founder of Livestrong, seven-time clean Tour de France champion. Tell the story, make money. Everybody wins.
“This story was so perfect for so long,” Armstrong told Oprah in an interview that aired Thursday night. “It’s this mythic, perfect story, and it wasn’t true.”
Armstrong fidgeted in his seat. He chose his words carefully. He fully admitted to doping, to the years and years of lies. He avoided direct apologies. Most of us saw it Thursday night, if we located Oprah’s TV network on our dial, but filmmaker Alex Gibney was there in person for the taping of the interview Monday -- just another day in a long ride in which he’s gotten far greater access to Armstrong than most, and a chance to form a more nuanced opinion than the rest of us.
Since 2009, Gibney, who won an Academy Award in 2007 for his documentary “Taxi to the Dark Side,” has been working on a documentary about Armstrong. Originally titled “The Road Back” (title now to be determined), the film followed Armstrong through his comeback in the 2009 Tour de France, in which he finished third, and it was completed by the time Armstrong’s former teammate, Tyler Hamilton, told “60 Minutes” that Armstrong doped in a 2011 interview. Gibney said that those revelations, and the subsequent grand-jury investigation, forced him to put the film on hold and alter the scope. It’s another in a line of “perfect” sports stories taking a sharp turn in the opposite direction, although Gibney said the original version of his film did include plenty of doping-related material, from Armstrong critic David Walsh to Betsy and Frankie Andreu -- only what eluded just about everyone was the tangible proof.
“I think the whole Lance Armstrong story is a kind of Rorschach test for America,” Gibney said in his Manhattan studio Thursday afternoon. “And hopefully it’s a learning moment. Because I think that one of the things that interested me about the story from the get-go was the idea of winning at all costs. And I think in some ways, Americans like that. It’s like, ‘F--- it, you’ve got to dig down deep and do whatever the f--- you need to do in order to win.’ Period. End of story. Because we like winners. Second place is first loser. But, honestly, if you step back and see the damage done by that kind of attitude when all you care about is winning, and suddenly you start to realize that maybe it’s not such a good idea to say that the end justifies the means.”
This was the life Lance Armstrong lived throughout his professional career. He pathologically lied to reporters, to fans, to his foundation, to Gibney, and he used the immense power he built up in the cycling world to attempt to control the message and crush anyone who tried to bring him down. He admitted much of this to Oprah, but with little remorse, often using the passive voice, searching for technicalities and dancing around outright apologies and admissions of guilt.
He’s only sorry because he has to be sorry; he’s only telling his story because there’s no longer another viable story to tell. And now the story will move forward, will move to endless debates about his “legacy,” as if there is some clear-cut answer to the sports media’s go-to talking point, designed to fill hours of airtime and pages of space without leaving much room for real discussion.
“This need to either have a pure white hat or a pure black hat, it’s a very peculiar American disease,” Gibney said. “It’s kind of like the superhero phenomenon, but the flipside of the superhero phenomenon is the bad-apple phenomenon, or the scapegoat phenomenon. We need to find ways of having certainty in our life, right? This uncertainty is killing us, particularly Americans.”
It’s hard to believe anyone could watch the 90-minute program Thursday night and come away thinking that Armstrong had somehow improved his reputation, or swayed public opinion back in the positive direction, back toward that unimpeachable image he enjoyed in the eyes of many in the early 2000s.
The issue of performance-enhancing drugs, which he has admitted to using, provides easy access to the black-and-white legacy arguments. Did he dope? Yes? OK, then he’s a bad person. It’s an easy way to ignore the larger issues, to ignore the culture of doping in a sport like cycling, or baseball, or football, to ignore, as Gibney describes, the “win-at-all-costs” attitude so prevalent in sports, so prevalent in the culture at-large.
“There’s a lot of talk about doping, but I think a bigger issue for Lance is the abuse of power, because he had power, and he abused it, and he went after people who are much weaker than he is -- and he went after them hard,” Gibney said. “He went after them for trying to tell the truth, and that he’s going to have to reckon with. It will be interesting to see in the wake of [the Oprah interview], and obviously it’s one of the issues that I’m interested in, just how that plays itself out, because somebody who embodied the win-at-all-costs idea, whether he can learn to play a different way. And that’s really a bigger question for not only our sports, but society.
“How do we reckon with that idea? On the one hand, it’s an intensely competitive notion. But once you accept total war, then nothing matters. You can torch cities, you can kill civilians, and you don’t care because the end is supposed to justify the means. There’s a reason we have the Geneva Conventions. And in sports, there’s a reason why we have rules. What was it Madison said about government? He said if men were angels, we wouldn’t need government. So I don’t know how the public is going to react; it’s going to be very interesting. My prediction is that people will react very negatively toward Lance at first. The question really is more open-ended, like what happens after that? And that depends on people, but it also depends to some extent on Lance.”
Once a neutral observer who knew little of cycling, Gibney has now spent an enormous amount of time with Armstrong and has a unique opportunity to delve deeply into that gray area. The reworked film remains a work in progress; his goal is to release it sometime this year.
He won’t give his outright opinion of Armstrong, because, as he says, it’s the subject of the film, and work isn’t even complete yet. It’s an ongoing story. The new version will feature himself as the narrator, using first-person perspective to provide angles from someone who has followed Armstrong through France, someone who has been blatantly lied to, and someone who is in position to give the story behind what was thought to be the perfect story.
As we’ve seen all too well of late, the perfect story is far more elusive than we’d like to think.