When Lance Armstrong was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in January, the chatshow queen immediately hit him with a series of questions that demanded yes or no answers. It made for exhilarating television as he confessed to doping in all seven of his Tour de France victories.
It was confirmation of a truth that many couldn’t – or wouldn’t – believe as victories in the world’s most famous race stacked up for the cancer survivor. For the small band of journalists and former friends and associates of Armstrong who had been calling him out on his cheating for years, the Oprah admissions were vindication at last. The ensuing interview, however, didn’t live up to that electric beginning, with Armstrong’s contrition seeming as genuine as those fraudulent triumphs he achieved from 1999 to 2005.
In 2009, Armstrong, who had battled testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain before winning his first Tour, attempted another comeback and invited documentary maker Alex Gibney along for the gruelling ride. Gibney hoped to make a triumphant, real-life Rocky story. Yet as he was editing his material Armstrong’s cheating was finally exposed.
In August 2012 he announced that he would not contest the charges against him from the United States Anti-Doping Agency, whose subsequent report on the US Postal team, of which Armstrong was undisputed leader, concluded that the team had run “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen”. Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour titles and banned from professional cycling for life.
Angry at being duped, Gibney went back to Armstrong and demanded a new interview. That interview forms a central part of Gibney’s final cut, The Armstrong Lie, which is being shown at the BFI’s London Film Festival today and will be released in Britain in January.
The film confirms, as the majority of the Oprah interview did, that Armstrong doesn’t appear to be sorry at all. During the Oprah exchanges he trotted out a weasely qualification that he returns to in The Armstrong Lie again and again, which can be summed up this way: “Everyone else was doping, so why pick on me?” Most staggeringly of all, at one point he even seems to suggest that history will judge him and his Tour wins favourably.
In his pomp, Armstrong had stuck to the line that he had never been caught doping as a means of self-justification and shutting down his critics. That was in itself a lie: he was caught doping during his first Tour win, but was able to get away with it. All he has done now is to find a new way to delude himself.
Whether he likes it or not, Armstrong is a special case because of the extent of his cheating, and the way he bullied, intimidated and threatened anyone who tried to tried to tell the truth. A former US Postal masseuse was branded a “prostitute and alcoholic” for revealing the team’s doping secrets, while in 2006 the Sunday Times had to pay Armstrong more than £700,000 in damages and costs for an article that accused him of doping.
There are countless other examples of Armstrong’s terrible behaviour, summed up neatly in The Armstrong Lie (and in Sunday Times sportswriter David Walsh’s excellent book, Seven Deadly Sins), yet it’s a measure of his stubbornness that he is still trying to play down his cheating.
There are those who may sympathise with his “everyone else was doing it” excuse, and greater numbers still who might think that the huge sums raised for his Livestrong cancer foundation more than make up for his cheating.
But given that so many cancer sufferers took solace in Armstrong’s story and that he was able to amass a huge personal fortune while denigrating anyone who accused him of cheating, many won’t accept that he really cares until he comes clean once and for all, and without qualification.