The Truth Will Set you Free: Moral Relativism and The Armstrong Lie

Simon Smart considers the questions raised by a new documentary on Lance Armstrong.

You wouldn’t need to be interested in the sport of cycling to be captivated by Alex Gibney’s documentary portrait of disgraced one-time legend of the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong. The Armstrong Lie is a fascinating character study, a cautionary tale and a mildly disturbing piece of social commentary.

This film feels like a Shakespearean tragedy. The hero loved and lauded hides a dark secret. Shady characters lurk in the background, like Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, alleged architect of Armstrong’s drug taking program and complex system of escaping detection. Noble truth tellers—journalists, ex-team mates and former friends—are defamed, humiliated and crushed beneath the weight of Team Armstrong. Finally there is the day of reckoning, the spectacular fall from grace, the excruciating confessions. It’s compelling viewing, but in the manner of a horrible car crash with wide ranging consequences.

Gibney, famed director of docos like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, originally set out to tell the story of Armstrong’s comeback to the Tour de France in 2009 after four years away from the sport. But a doping investigation in 2012 stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour wins and banned him for life, finally and conclusively proving he was a cheat. Armstrong, who had consistently and stridently claimed to be innocent of all allegations of doping, was forced to admit the deception. Gibney said, “you owe me an explanation.” The film captures Armstrong’s (sometimes) candid response.

The film weaves together spectacular footage of various Armstrong triumphs from Le Tour—surely one of the world’s most scenically beautiful sporting events—with intimate behind-the-scenes moments from the comeback season of 2009. Gibney’s narration evokes a sense of wounded betrayal that many felt at the hands of the Armstrong deception. Interspersed throughout is an extended interview with the ‘King’, having lost his crown, as he faces Gibney and finally owes up to his crimes and misdemeanors. It’s like being squeezed into a confessional.

The Armstrong story is timelessly interesting. Raised by a single Mum, he never met his father. From an early age life took the form of fierce competition, a fight, in which he relished the chance to defy the odds, to prove himself and to crush opponents. Armstrong drew on those qualities most when testicular cancer brought him close to death in 1996, with the disease having spread to his lungs, and brain. Critically ill, he required testicular and brain surgery and huge amounts of chemotherapy.

His recovery, to not only be declared cancer free, but in 1999, to triumph in the Tour—the toughest endurance race on the planet—was truly astonishing. It remains one of the most remarkable athletic feats in the history of sport.

Armstrong was duly catapulted into a stratosphere of immense wealth, rock star fame and adulation. Fêted by talk show hosts, courted by global brands, he became an inspiration to cancer sufferers that they might not only recover but also emerge from their struggle better than they were before. The more success he achieved, the more his story became about power. Amazingly he managed to string together seven Tour de France victories before retiring rich and loved the world over. Many believe that if Armstrong hadn’t dared to return to the sport in 2009, he might well have gotten away with it.

But it was all too good to be true. Gibney counts himself among many who wanted to believe “the beautiful lie more than the ugly truth.”

The film reveals Armstrong to be a magnetic character able to bring people under his spell. Even knowing what we all know, as a viewer you somehow want to believe him. But Gibney skilfully reminds us at opportune times of Armstrong’s ruthless, self-obsessed, manipulative personality, and stunning ability to orchestrate a litany of elaborate lies. Armstrong not only stuck to his story throughout his career, he also villified anyone who dared to question his integrity. Meanwhile he and his teammates, drugged up on chemicals and the rush of success, reaped the rewards of their deception.

Even now, with the game entirely up, with Armstrong facing law suits in the hundreds of millions of dollars, banned for life from competing in any event controlled by WADA, stripped of his seven titles, relationships ruined and sponsorship deals in tatters, you get the feeling he still doesn’t feel sorry for what he did. He’s certainly sorry he got caught.

As Armstrong says in the film, everyone was doing it. In that era you couldn’t compete without doping. He brought a lot of hope to cancer sufferers, his Livestrong Cancer Foundation raised over $300 million, and think of all the joy he brought to millions of people revelling in this amazing story of triumph over adversary.

But of course, plenty of us will feel that none of that makes it OK. The sort of moral relativism that enables us justify wrong behaviour on the basis of other apparent goods still jars against a sense of right and wrong. The experts interviewed for the film leave the audience in no doubt as to where they sit on that score.

You get the sense that the moment Armstrong took the fateful step to use drugs his path was set. After the first lie, every other lie became not only easier but also necessary. From the first autograph, or fawning article, it was too late to pull back. The elaborate myth built on a web of half-truths, and outright lies essentially formed a prison wall within which Armstrong lived, admittedly in great luxury and comfort, for many years.

But the party was always going to end badly. The film concludes with Armstrong as a lonely figure; his reputation trashed, but defiantly holding on to justifications only he now accepts. Ancient wisdom tells us “The truth will set you free”. When Jesus taught that he was mostly referring to himself as the truth and what is to be gained by following him. But his thoughts are broadly applicable and pertinent to this drama.

Redemption for Armstrong would seem to rely on facing the truth about himself and the wide-ranging impact of his actions. It’s impossible to say whether he has done that. In many ways, the depth and extent of the untruths of this story make it a long and painful road back. But that sort of honest self-reflection is surely necessary if Armstrong is to come close to matching his extraordinary athletic feats with the kind of moral character that can last long after the cheering (or perhaps jeering) crowds have dispersed.

Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity