A new documentary about the fall from grace of internationally renowned cyclist Lance Armstrong does us the favour of defining the difference between admission and apology.
The Armstrong Lie is a production written, directed and narrated by master documentary maker Alex Gibney. Gibney’s best known for his insightful examinations Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room and We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks. However this time around he freely admits he was more participant than observer, a growing fan of Armstrong who eventually lined up with his victims. Gibney began documenting the seven times Tour de France champion’s return to cycling in 2009 after Armstrong’s four year battle with testicular cancer. However the project was put on hold when his spectacular career and fairytale triumph were swamped by overwhelming evidence he was a drug cheat. Years later the director returns to try and understand why Lance didn’t pull back before the lie consumed his life.
The Armstrong Lie reveals a character that always struggled to accept authority. The cyclist was raised by his mother and never met his father. It recounts an argument between a young Lance and his coach in which he shut the conversation down with, “You’re not my dad.” Gibney sees this as a phrase that shaped Armstrong’s life. No-one had the right to tell him what to do. Armstrong’s cycling team mates, mentors and observers all reflect on a personality that acknowledged no one better, that would bully its way to victory. As the editor of Bicycling summarises:
“That urge to crush, that urge to push back, that urge to dominate – it’s not in him to give in. He is the master of his story.”
And this is why Lance could not pull back, no matter how much evidence for cheating piled up around him. He had constructed the story of the victorious Tour de France cyclist, the triumphant cancer survivor and that lie had become his life. In his own words, he could no more pull back from it than die:
“I like to win but more than anything I can’t stand the idea of losing, because to lose is death.”
But what most viewers will want to know from The Armstrong Lie is whether or not a changed man has emerged from the wreckage of his career. Sadly, the answer is no. Armstrong is still clearly looking for a way to keep the story alive. His first hand accounts focus on the drug culture that permeated the entire sport, the officials who lied alongside him, the pressure his fans, his sponsors, the cancer sufferers of the world brought to bear. Most importantly, his frank admissions never really amounts to an apology. Instead he finishes with the conviction that people will one day look back and admit, “…that Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France.”
Watching, we realise the sad truth that there can be no forgiveness without repentance. Cycling enthusiasts aside, the God of the universe has the final say as to whether someone’s sins can be set aside. His son Jesus tells us that forgiveness is free to all who would receive it, but in order to take it we must come with empty hands. We need to admit that we morally poverty-stricken before he can enrich us.
Lance may not realise it but it’s actually his determination not to admit he was wrong – not the cheating – that is the most offensive part of The Armstrong Lie. One of the real benefits of this documentary might be to show people just how ugly unflinching unrepentance is – but I don’t expect the lesson to be carried home to those who really need to hear it. Like Lance, they tend to be the same people who never suspect the moral applies to them.
Release Date: March 13