Lance Armstrong documentary: ‘Don’t give up on sport cos of liars like Lance,’ says filmmaker Alex Gibney

Oscar-winning documentary maker Alex Gibney got too close in filming Armstrong’s comeback but, he tells Matt Butler, stopped ‘being a fan’ and confronted his subject when the truth about doping broke

Alex Gibney has known Lance Armstrong for over five years. He documented his comeback to the Tour de France in 2009, then, after the American rider’s partial disclosure about doping, sat down with him again – this time to go over just how much of what the cyclist said previously was a lie.

And yet despite all this, the Oscar-winning documentary maker is, time zones permitting, watching this year’s Tour. The maker of The Armstrong Lie still allows himself to believe in sport. He knows there will always be cheats but, as he puts it, to give up on sport because of one liar, even one who had dismantled completely many people’s belief in cycling, would be “like having your heart broken then never falling in love again”. He adds: “You’d be wiser, but there would be no fun.”

Gibney initially started filming Armstrong in his preparation for his comeback because he thought it would be a good story. Matt Damon was due to narrate it. Gibney had heard the insinuations and allegations that the rider had won his seven Tour titles through doping and even broached the question himself, only to be given the same short shrift that numerous other journalists had been handed.

“I was not naive about whether he had doped or not,” Gibney said. “It was impossible to believe that he had won the Tour de France seven times, it was ... what’s the phrase the French use? ‘Pas normale’.”

But once he ensconsed himself in Armstrong’s inner circle, Gibney found himself in a strange situation. As a film-maker, he was used to asking difficult questions and being viewed suspiciously by his subjects – he had, after all made films exposing financial wrongdoing at the energy company Enron in The Smartest Guys in the Room, political corruption in Casino Jack and the United States of Money, and the CIA’s dubious policies on interrogation in Taxi to the Dark Side, which won him the Academy Award.

He had never been seen as part of a cover story. And it made him angry.

“I felt used as part of the comeback myth,” Gibney said. “I was surprised to an extent that I became a fan and that clouded my judgement. I was upset that I had come to be seen as part of the cover story. I was inside the bubble. I knew stories that Lance Armstrong had doped before, but I was seen as doing the puff-piece – I had never been seen in that way before and it upset me.”

Gibney’s transformation is depicted in a sequence in the film where Armstrong is climbing the notorious Ventoux in a stage which would make or break his hopes of winning the race. He powers up the mountain with his main rival, Alberto Contador, in hot pursuit. Gibney is seen shouting encouragement at Armstrong, but the voiceover ruefully says: “I had become a fan.”

In the event, Armstrong’s comeback did not go entirely to plan and he finished the Tour in third – a position which was later annulled to give Sir Bradley Wiggins his first podium finish – which meant the documentary was shelved.

Then came the revelation that Armstrong had indeed doped. Gibney got in touch with the now disgraced rider and told him he was going to resurrect the film, this time with the focus on how Gibney himself had been duped into the Armstrong myth.

“After the truth came out I was quite forthright with him about the direction I was going to take with the documentary – that I was going to take the line of the lie and me being caught in it. He must have approved because he agreed to sit down for me again.

“I ended up narrating it, I became part of the story. I wanted to acknowledge that I had become caught up in the myth and become a fan.

“It is easy to do in sport, we get caught up in the enchantment in it. But there is doping in Fifa, in the NFL ... and the people who run the sports approve it in a de facto way, because it gives us a better spectacle.”

Gibney admits Armstrong’s deceit angered him, but as a documentary maker “people always make me angry. In my line of work being affected because someone makes me angry would be like a surgeon who is afraid of blood.”

Now that one of sport’s biggest liars has been caught, cycling is a cleaner place. Other sports would do well to follow its lead over vigilance against doping but, as Gibney said, it would be imprudent to think that just because testing and control have become more complex, the era of the cheat is over.

“It is naive to think there will one day be this sporting nirvana where nobody cheats. It is better to have rules and to enforce those rules. In any professional sport, where there is a lot of money, there are going to be cheats. The thing is to catch them.

“You can look at sport like you would look at the world of finance. Do we really believe that bankers are going to stop cutting corners and do everything by the book? No, we don’t – or at least I hope we don’t. It is the same with sports.

“Just because that cheating shit Lance has gone from cycling, is it all good – will everyone ride clean from now on? No. We have to keep our eyes open, but that doesn’t mean we have to close our hearts. I will always be a big sports nut, I love it.”

‘The Armstrong Lie’ is out now on Blu-ray and DVD