In 2009, Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney and his studio were given access to Lance Armstrong that no outsider had ever had before for a film documenting the cycling champion’s incredible Tour de France comeback after battling testicular cancer.
Despite spending a year inside Armstrong’s normally private bubble, what Gibney and his team didn’t know was that much of Armstrong’s successful pro-cycling career, including his seven previous Tour wins, was all based on a lie, and Gibney and his team were being played.
"I think particularly at the beginning there was not a sense of vulnerability, a sense of ‘hubris,’ is what the Greeks call it, that ‘nobody is ever going to discover my lie, so come along for the ride,’" Gibney said.
Gibney’s film, "The Armstrong Lie," which premieres on Nov. 8, dissects what has been called the biggest fraud in all of sports, exploring how Armstrong lied for years about doping, how it became all-consuming and how he did almost anything to protect it.
"It was Lance’s abuse of power that was really the most reprehensible thing, and that is how people really get offended by this story," Gibney said. "Part of it was the way he went after people, part of it was the way he actually wrapped himself in the mantle of the cancer survivor."
It is a film Gibney never intended to make. Initially, Gibney was directing a positive story about Armstrong, who returned to competitive cycling in 2009 after a four-year hiatus as he trained for his eighth Tour de France title. The studio finished the film, which was originally called "The Road Back," complete with narration by Matt Damon, but before the studio could release it, "Nightline" ran a tell-all piece in 2010 with Armstrong’s former teammate Floyd Landis.
During the "Nightline" interview, Landis said he had used performance-enhancing drugs and received illicit blood transfusions for much of his cycling career. He made sweeping accusations against others, including Armstrong, saying he had seen the cycling giant receive illicit transfusions "multiple times."
"Look. At some point, people have to tell their kids that Santa Claus isn’t real. I hate to be the guy to do it, but it’s just not real," Landis told "Nightline" in 2010.
After the interview aired, Armstrong publicly denied Landis’ accusations, but Gibney shelved the film and went to work reshooting a completely different story. "The Armstrong Lie" ended up detailing Armstong’s epic collapse.
"In terms of his ability to be a liar and to be a cover-up artist, he is at the tippy top. He is the very best," Gibney said.
Year after year, Armstrong repeatedly denied having ever doped, often lashing out at reporters in frustration for asking questions about it. Then, in an infamous interview with Oprah Winfrey last year, Armstrong came clean about his doping past, saying he had been "living a lie." He was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and left his Livestrong Foundation.
Using footage from "The Road Back," Gibney was left with moments he never imagined capturing. He had remarkable access and spoke to Armstrong hours after the Oprah interview in which the cycling star delved deeper into how he kept his doping a secret.
In the film, a shell-shocked Armstrong explains matter of factly how it all began — his decision to cheat by using performance-enhancing drugs.
"There was a group of us primarily living in Italy and we just said we either have to play ball here or go home," Armstrong tells Gibney in the film.
"Were you pissed off you had to do it or you just did what you had to do?" Gibney asks him.
"The latter," Armstrong responds with a laugh. "Maybe I’d approach the decision differently today, but at the time I didn’t lose sleep over it."
Armstrong also further explained how he got away with using the blood booster EPO during races.
"The half-life of EPO is four hours, so back it off from there and figure out when you’re in trouble," Armstrong says in the film. "My defense was I have passed every control you’ve given me. That’s true. The samples that were given were clean."
Gibney said "the great tragedy" of Armstrong is that he continually justified what he was doing.
"He couldn’t see the difference. He couldn’t see the borderline between where the sport ended and the where real life began," Gibney said.
Much of Armstrong’s life today centers on trying to keep what he has left. Three major lawsuits, including a fraud case brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, that seeks to strip him of more than $100 million.
"The last time I communicated with Lance was when I let him know that the film was going to be called ‘The Armstrong Lie,’" Gibney said.
When asked how Armstrong took the news, Gibney said "not so well."
If Armstrong’s reputation stands a chance at any kind of redemption, it will likely take a while.
"People don’t like that truth as much as they liked the beautiful lie, and that’s a hard thing for Lance to accept, because he found much more affection in telling the beautiful life than the ugly truth," Gibney said.
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