The Armstrong Lie

The Armstrong Lie

Postby CAP » Sun Apr 13, 2014 3:55 am

There are a few more background details in here but basically this is Alex Gibney trying to find a way of salvaging footage he shot on Lance Armstrong’s 2009 comeback to The Tour de France after retiring with seven consecutive wins in 2005. Everyone knows the Armstrong myth now – winner of seven consecutive Tours de France – an unheard of feat – later declared a drug cheat. Gibney was anticipating a spectacular victory for dramatic as well as marketing reasons but that didn’t quite happen. Armstrong finished third and then tested positive to banned substances. Gibney had to radically rethink the story and his sympathies. The ensuing scandal however kept Armstrong in the news and Gibney saw a way to recycle all that footage with a couple of additional interviews from Armstrong (post Oprah confession) and some of those that testified against him. So what we have here is a sort of cannibalised/patch-up job, unfortunately now in the wake of a stream of TV shows and articles carrying much the same material so it’s only intermittently illuminating. I give it four.

Gibney himself comes over as a bit of a fan of Lance, buys into a lot of American exceptionalism/arrogance, a little too ready to take Armstrong’s word on a lot of things, not especially knowledgeable about road cycling, a little ingratiating and well, basically a dick. So I struggled to get on board. The thing had a cinema release in January I think but I was too busy then and only catch it now as an AVI (no money changed hands and no questions asked, but we did have a bit of a laugh). But I still feel disappointed. Most maddening is the way the movie skirts and skips around a lot of stuff that Lance refused to talk about, like the very dubious activities of his team manager, Flemish flimflam facilitator Johan Bruyneel. Wow what a piece of work. Then there’s the then head of the UCI (main international cycling body) and good friend, Hein Verbruggen. Hein the swine simply ignored positive drug tests where the team was sufficiently prestigious (i.e. had huge sponsorship pouring money into everyone’s pockets) and just quietly told them to cool it a bit. How very enlightened. Well someone’s pockets would have been a little enlightened, put it that way. There’s so much bribery and corruption going on, whole ‘independent’ investigations, boards and commissions are rigged. Then there are vicious law suits that follow the findings of the investigations, bankrupting dissenting voices. They were probably rigged as well. There’s no standing in the way of this sort of money and menace and this is all part of the lie. But we never really get near any of that, and we learn of it only in Europe although pretty clearly a lot of American cycling bodies were also in the pay of the Armstrong juggernaut and American cycling – like cycling everywhere - was rife with doping from the start. But that’s not the story Lance tells and it’s not one Gibney wants to follow.

We don’t really get the story of why the American anti-doping agency, ASADA eventually focuses on Armstrong, after he’s retired, either. Presumably, Armstrong Inc. had that angle covered previously, or thought they had, but ASADA’s gun investigator, Jeff Novitzky kind of slips under the radar initially. Novitzky doesn’t appear in the movie either, regrettably. Gibney really just wants to hear Armstrong say, “Yeah I lied about it all. I took drugs and cheated with blood transfusions. Boo hoo”. But there isn’t a huge payoff there, unless you were sold on Armstrong as the super-human All American hero in the first place. And while that includes most people, a lot of us smelled a rat all along. The way Armstrong was always sidling up to Eddie Merckx, no Mr. Nice Guy himself, smacked of ingratiating acceptance by association – guilt compensation. All along, old school cycling coaches and bio-mechanics consultants (many of them Dutch and everyone agrees no one takes cycling as seriously as the Dutch, and no-one has studied the problem of climbing mountains so assiduously as the Dutch, or in fact had more success in the mountain stages of The Tour) accused Armstrong of cheating. At first they thought it could be his bike, and if not the bike then drugs. But the bike tested clean and so did Armstrong. They were told to put up or shut up. They quietly persisted – for years! – saying that no-one climbs Alpe d’Huez averaging 25 kph without cheating (as Armstrong had done). It’s just not physically possible within the rules, certainly not with Armstrong’s stature – top climbers are usually whippet-like little men – very light, very compact. Armstrong countered it was because he had adopted a high cadence (or peddling faster in a lower gear) as a way of conserving energy, as notably, Miguel Indurain, a previous tall climber and winner of the Tour had done. They just laughed at him. High cadence techniques had been around for years – they are more efficient for tall bodies, true – but you still have to feed those long legs a lot of energy over 7 or 8km. Where was all that coming from?

But no-one was allowed to do the science and when you’re tipped off about drug tests so that you can avoid them and if you are caught then the results are hidden, there is just a stand-off. Accusers can’t prove anything. Defenders can’t explain anything. But the doubt obviously still hovers. Armstrong’s main smokescreen though was his triumph over testicular cancer and prominent Livestrong Foundation for cancer sufferers. No one wanted to discredit that, obviously. Who wanted to target such a notable doer of noble works? Unfortunately all too often, indulgences cover a multitude of sins. Gangsters and thugs, cheats and bullies buy respectability through philanthropy, charity, sponsorship and innocence by association. It’s called advertising and it’s always good for business. Never look a gift horse in the mouth - you might see what it had for lunch. It’s one of the great pillars of biblical faith and capitalism, actually: we forgive your sins if you buy enough stuff for us, if you’re high enough up the pecking order, that is. It’s such a reassuring message, isn’t it? And Lance just can’t do enough where the cause is so just. Actually, Armstrong contracts testicular cancer because of all his drug taking – EPO, steroids, growth hormones – the whole unregulated, desperate cocktail for success, when you are unaccustomed to failure. The oncologists ask him about that when they’re pondering treatment, prognosis. He admits it all in the presence of friends Frankie and Betsy Andru, who later testify to his confession. And it’s not like the drugs could even win it for him back then – he only completed one of five starts in The Tour de France previous to contracting cancer. But when he does survive the terrible chemotherapy at astonishing odds and he does make it back to cycling, he at least knows he’s going to need more than the magic vitamins to make him a winner again.

It’s as if beating cancer excuses him whatever steps he needs to take to be a winner again. That’s when he forms unholy alliances with Bruyneel and doctor of sports doctoring, Michele Ferrari, each already with very dubious reputations. Ferrari at least keeps the drug doses at non-carcinogenic levels. Bruyneel makes sure they’ll never be caught. That’s when the lie assumes enormous proportions and anything and everything is permitted to protect it. This is really the story a movie about Armstrong needs to tell. It’s not just that he cheated but that he couldn’t stop cheating and cheating grew more ruthless and vicious until he just has too many enemies and the game just got too political. You go high enough up the pecking order it gets harder to watch your back. That’s really the lesson here – you can win ‘em all.

But if nothing else, Armstrong will be remembered for taking dedication to new and frankly pathological levels. He single-mindedly concentrates on just The Tour de France – doesn’t bother with the rest of the calendar of grand tours, apart from the occasional stage here and there as test runs – fanatically spends the whole year preparing for every single stage, scouting, analysing and practising them, planning them and the needs and use of his team. No team has ever before had the money or luxury of such close preparation, may never again. Many attributed this dedication to Armstrong’s success – many claimed he would still have won for this reason, quite apart from the drugs and blood transfusions. But Lance just couldn’t take the chance, couldn’t leave any margin for error. That says something about the person, the stakes. At that level, it’s not really sport anymore – it’s war. And as Armstrong admits here, it’s ‘to the death’ – after the cancer he sees everything in terms of killing the opposition or being killed by it. He becomes a sort of Arnie Schwarzenegger of road cycling. Does that seem a little crazy? It is.

Massive American sponsorships also allow him to recruit a superb team, every time. That’s part of the winning formula. But that money is also steadily corrupting the whole administration, the UCI’s supposed impartiality and drug testing regimes, top down. That kind of power also brings out the bully in Armstrong. When he savagely cuts the pay of team mate and long time friend, Frankie Andru, Andru explains he will be forced to leave the team. Bruyneel smugly insists on knowing where he will get other offers – Andru foolishly tells him and Bruyneel then makes calls and effectively blacklists Andru throughout professional road cycling. That’s the kind of connections Bruyneel has. Andru, a former team leader is forced out of the sport, must be content with occasional TV reporting on cycling. Lance has no problem making enemies. No one is permitted to interfere with his plans, his image and story. When Greg LeMond, former Tour de France winner, accuses Ferrari of abetting drug cheats, Armstrong uses his clout through Trek Bicycles (another major American sponsor) to drop LeMond’s bicycles from their retail chain and eventually to cease production of them through Trek’s factories. This is catastrophic for LeMond’s brand. See, it’s all about brand and ‘loyalty’. This is all low-key, behind the scenes stuff of course, but the business model is clear – competition is intimidation, submit or die. Time and again Armstrong punishes even the slightest dissent or competition. Is it any surprise the competition grows a lot keener and more cunning, in the end punishes Armstrong just as savagely? What goes around; comes around.

I dwell on the details here because the fact that there is eventually a reckoning is considerable consolation for me. This kind of pervasive corruption and conspiracy seems to me emblematic of the times and to see it laid bare at least rescues some notion of justice. On a personal note, although I am not a cyclist, I too have been victim to similar systemic abuse. I have had a career sabotaged by cruel and treacherous agendas of others, oh so subtly, oh so discreetly. And quite counter to the rules. And I’ve seen the same hypocrisy and collusion in local government and courts, up close and personal. And I pay the price. Seeing it in sport hasn’t made it anymore of a sport. But I’m not completely demoralised or cynical either, nor obviously are those dogged investigators in doping bodies like ASADA, journalists like those at L’Équipe, all those athletes that just want to play by the rules. You can silence them, you can sue and threaten them, but they will only find other ways to persist, they will only become more determined - it really is to the death. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that we never quite get to the bottom of it; never quite finish with all the favours and secrecy, the privileges and deals. It’s essentially a constant cycle of growing excess and sharp reprisal. Part of Armstrong’s excuse in The Armstrong Lie is that everyone was cheating when he first attempted The Tour and that you can’t win it without using drugs or blood transfusions; at least not these days. But you can’t win if you get caught cheating either, and no matter when they catch you, you can no longer be a winner. The Armstrong Lie ought to condemn the man out of hand, but it too is looking for favours elsewhere, trying to sell America on a more painless absolution, a sleazy and sentimental compromise. There is more than just one lie in this movie.
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