by filmmaker Alex Gibney
I am often asked: “Were you angry when you found out that Armstrong lied to you?”
The peculiar answer is no and yes.
The fact is that people lie to me all the time. Often on camera. Usually they are not big bold lies, like the one Armstrong told. Usually, they are little lies, ones that shade the truth like cocktail parasols.
When I started this film, I assumed that Armstrong was likely lying about the fact that he had never doped. There had been a number of articles and testimony on the subject and his own victories offered a powerful anecdotal clue: in the seven years that Armstrong won the Tour de France, all but one of the people who shared the podium with him had been popped for doping. Armstrong’s answer to those who thought his racing clean was, er, hard to believe: “It is a miracle!”
I wasn’t angry when I heard that lie. Any atheist (Armstrong does not believe in God) who can get away with the miracle line deserves a peculiar kind of admiration. And after years of watching politicians promising world peace, less taxes and more benefits, well, I learned to live with cynicism.
Then Armstrong lied to me, straight to my face.
Flashback to 2009. I was riding in a car with Armstrong, his pal Bart Knaggs and his coach Johan Bruyneel on our way to Newport Beach, where Armstrong was going to have dinner with an ex-girlfriend. Lance was chuckling to himself over a new idea. He wanted his old teammate, Frankie Andreu, to be the only American to do daily on-camera interviews with Lance during the Tour de France. Thinking about the possibilities of this prank, Lance was giddy.
But Johan was in agony: he thought it was a terrible idea. Lance’s comeback in 2009 would inevitably raise new questions about old allegations of doping. And Frankie had been a sworn witness to the fact that he had heard Lance admit to using a bucketful of performance enhancing drugs.
But Lance had learned how to hide his lie in plain sight. He was daring Frankie to say something about Lance’s doping—an activity to which Frankie had already copped. He was also sending a message to Frankie and his wife Betsy—a longtime critic of Lance—that he had Frankie’s career in the palm of his hand. Last, and likely least, he might also patch up a torn friendship and pump it up, like an old tire, with some hot air.
Having seen the plan hatched with my own eyes, I returned to the subject some days later, in a sit-down relationship with Lance. “Was there any mischief in the Frankie Andreu plan?” I asked. In a tone and manner that was worthy of Bill Clinton questioning the meaning of the verb “to be,” Lance shook his head said, “absolutely not.”
At the time, I just let it go. But years later it really did piss me off, not just because he was lying, but because I finally understood that he was sending a more powerful message to me: the price of access is that you are now part of the myth burnishing promo team. You may see things but they will be invisible to the outside world because I, Lance, will deny them and people will believe me.
Well, in the days ahead, I saw the Frankie plan play out. Frankie dutifully interviewed Lance in the 2009 Tour de France. Lance provided the sound bites that made Versus, the network that hired Frankie, happy. In front of the throng of Lance’s fans, the two men smiled grimly at each other like two crocodiles posing for a picture.
Then something interesting happened.
On top of Verbier, in the Swiss Alps, Frankie moved in for a post-mortem on a day when Lance had been badly beaten by his rival Contador. Lance waited for the predictable question that he knew the network—so dependent on Lance for its ratings—wanted Frankie to ask: “Bad day today but you’re gonna get him tomorrow, right?” Instead Frankie asked Lance something far more honest: “So, you’re chances for winning the Tour are over now, right?”
For a second, you could see the quizzical look on Lance’s face. Really? You have the balls to ask me that? The ultimate ratings killer question? And in fact, in the TV truck, according to Frankie, producers were terrified, knowing that hands were moving toward channel clickers all over America. But then Lance did something unusual. He told the truth. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s over.”
Suddenly, between these two men, who had agreed to stage manage a lie, there was an honest moment. The Versus executives were furious. In the days ahead, ratings did drop along with Lance’s chances.
But Frankie had taught me something powerful. When it comes to breaking through a lie, timing is everything. And when it comes to uncovering the truth, don’t get mad, get even.