The Armstrong Lie (Gibney, 2013)


Allow me to present to you a hypothetical situation.

A person–doesn’t have to be a friend of yours necessarily, just someone you know or have heard of–is diagnosed with cancer. This person decides not to undergo any type of chemotherapy treatment or ingest any available medicines—because he equates treatment to “cheating.” Would you not think this an asinine response?

What he sees as cheating death, you see as cheating life. What he sees as giving him an unfair advantage over other cancer patients, you see doing everything he can to succeed. What he sees as having negative secondary effects, you see as ignoring the primary reason he is in the hospital.

And that’s the real argument I see being made in Alex Gibney’s documentary The Armstrong Lie.

Gibney, playing the part of narrator, tells the audience that the documentary had been in gestation for a long time. He admits that he, a long-time Armstrong fan, originally wanted the movie to document Lance’s return to cycling in 2009, after having spent four years in retirement. But allegations of doping, which had existed since Lance peaked in the cycling scene, reached a high point at this time, and they forced Gibney to alsmot abandon his documentary.

In this way the narration plays a key role in the audience perception of the documentary as Gibney walks the fine line between providing an in-depth, mature account of the facts and faces of the case and acting like a self-proclaimed Armstrong fan-boy.

Yet, with all the negative hype and attention brought to the Sestina Affair, I can’t seem to blame Lance Armstrong. Here are a couple of reasons the documentary presents which explain why:

  1. I wasn’t aware of this before the film, but blood-doping was an issue before Lance even put himself on the line at the Tour de France. In fact, the Tour de France’s commissioning body was looking for something, or someone, to help the public regain faith in the tour after the 1998 Tour ended with a number of the top riders testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
  2. Lance took the brunt of the blame but was hardly the only one doping. Those not really knowledgeable about the sport of professional cycling, which I am not, though the movie does supplement nicely, may not be aware that at least 58 professional cyclists were either indicted on charges of or banned from professional sports governed by USADA and/or WADA for using illegal/banned/performance-enhancing supplements.
  3. Lance was going to win—one way or another. He was just made that way. His prowess and drive were evident from the beginning of his athletic career. He wanted to win, and entered into competition with this goal, and this goal alone. It logically follows then that if it took blood-doping to win, he was going to do it.

Here then I invoke my initial hypothetical. Lance’s fight with cancer shaped his outlook on life. His battle with testicular cancer wasn’t one in which “losing” in the conventional athletic sense was an option. To lose would mean to die.

So for Lance, simply winning the battle wouldn’t be enough. He sought out the most cutting edge treatments for testicular cancer—a type of chemo-therapy treatment that would treat him, but not do so at the expense of scarring his lungs, allowing him to return to cycling after the ordeal. He did not want simply to live, but to live well.

He went on to apply this ideology to his racing—why simply race when you can race well? It would not be enough to simply engage in the battle, he would have to win the war. And so, just as he sought out the best medical doctors in ontology, he would also seek out the best doctors in physiology—Dr. Mikele Ferari.

I can’t seem to blame Lance Armstrong, as it didn’t seem like he had a choice. As he put it, how can it be considered “cheating” when the word “cheating” means to have an unfair advantage over the rest of the field? If the top 58 cyclists are all taking testosterone and cortisone then, weren’t they all, in a way, leveling their own playing field? I’m not saying that moral relativism is ever a legitimate argument for the normative fallacy, (which is to say that just because it’s happening doesn’t mean you can say because it is happening it ought to happen), but I am saying that I can’t blame Lance Armstrong. It would have been athletic suicide to go into a race against the best and deny the scientific advancements available to you.

I feel like I am echoing Lil Wayne, who when asked about legalizing steroids in professional baseball said, in a nut-shell, “I don’t care—let them all hit home-runs.”

Claudia Mundy is a senior English major at Campbell University and a writing intern for 1More Film Blog.

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