Lance Armstrong is one of the most controversial figures in sport.
This was the man who came back from a deadly cancer diagnosis to win the toughest bike race on the planet, the Tour de France.
He didn’t win it just the once, he won the race seven times in a row! An unprecedented feat that had not been replicated before.
You couldn’t have made the story up. However, everything wasn’t as it seemed. Despite only failing one drug test during those seven years, many people doubted Armstrong.
After all, the story did appear to be good to be true. Despite all the protestations, none of the allegations stuck. Armstrong would brush any shred of doubt off like he was riding past his rivals on a tough mountain climb.
That was until his return to professional cycling in 2009. It was at this point, that the carefully woven lie Armstrong had maintained for 10 years began to slowly unravel.
Three years later, it culminated in his fall from grace when he admitted he had used performance-enhancing drugs during an interview with Oprah Winfrey.
The lie Armstrong had created and persisted with was destroyed in an instant.
Armstrong had already achieved the impossible by surviving cancer and getting back on the bike. What compelled him to lie so vigorously, and for so long?
Maintaining a lie is difficult for the best of us, even those of us with hundreds of millions in the bank. No matter who you are, sooner or later, your lies catch up with you.
Making Of A Lie
Before Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer, he never looked like a rider who could win the Tour de France.
To win this gruelling event, you must endure 21 days of cycling that takes you across France, up and down mountain ranges, and across large swathes of countryside.
It is no easy feat, and the winners can usually be determined from a select group. There are certain physical characteristics they all share. Wiry, sinewy bodies, a discernible lack of muscle on the upper body. Armstrong did not match these criteria.
He was previously a triathlete before becoming a cyclist. His body was more muscular, he did not possess the ideal shape to haul himself up a mountain on a bike and survive with elite climbers.
After going through his treatment for testicular cancer, Armstrong lost this muscle. When he came back to professional competition, he looked different.
The bulk was gone. He looked much leaner and more like a rider who would be able to propel himself up a mountain, as opposed to one who would grind his way up.
When Armstrong won the opening stage of the 1999 Tour de France, no one, including himself, believed he could go on to win the whole race.
This story in itself was a miracle.
Cyclist beats cancer, comes back to race in the Tour de France, and wins the first stage to take the iconic Yellow Jersey. It was the stuff Hollywood scriptwriters would dream up.
If you watch interviews with Armstrong after this stage, you can see he does not have the poise and command he possessed in his later years. He is awkward and unsure of himself.
The power he commanded later in his career had not been created yet. He was just another rider. These are the founding moments of the lie Armstrong would develop over the coming years.
That lie was nearly derailed before it had even begun when Armstrong failed a drug test in the early stages of the race. He returned test samples with traces of corticosteroids, a banned substance used to treat saddle sores.
Armstrong was able to produce a Therapeutic Use Exemption certificate explaining away the indication of the corticosteroids in his sample. No further action was taken, and he went on to win the race.
This is where the lie solidifies and takes on a life of its own.
From this point on, there is no turning back. Armstrong has too much to lose, but so do the organisers of the Tour de France and the international governing body of cycling, the UCI.
The previous years’ Tour de France had been tarnished by drug abuse. The Festina team were thrown out of the race when one of their team cars was stopped passing through the Swiss Border and found to contain numerous drugs.
The team were thrown out of the race. Riders staged their own form of protest by cycling slowly on the next stage. A number of them pulled out in protest at the Festina team’s treatment as criminals.
It was the lowest point in the Tour’s history and came close to destroying the race.
The 1999 Tour was advertised as the Tour of Renewal. A clean break with the past. They needed Armstrong, and Armstrong needed them. The stakes were too high.
To the Tour, Armstrong represented the renewal they desired.
The man who survived cancer, and returned to win the hardest bike race of them all. It was the story they would have dreamt of at the start of the race.
There was just one problem:
The story was good to be true.
Anatomy Of A Lie
The problem with a lie is that once it is unleashed, it is hard to keep under control.
You need to be constantly on your guard to protect against any slips. You need to be aware of what you are saying to various people to ensure they are all getting the same message.
If there are multiple people in on the lie, it becomes harder to control. The more people that know, the more people that can unravel the lie later on.
The problem with lying is that in the end, you always get found out.
Despite all the power Armstrong accumulated during his career, he was no different. His lie wasn’t overly complex, but it involved too many people. Too many people, who as time progressed, began to harbour resentment towards Armstrong.
Once you have a few dissenters, the lie is on unstable ground, and it is only a matter of time before the whole edifice comes crumbling down. Armstrong had created his lie, but he also had to maintain it. There were numerous people who were convinced his story was too good to be true.
It took all the influence and power Armstrong wielded to keep them from reaching the truth.
This is ultimately how lies work. If you’re in a position of power, you can use that power to shout down anyone who attacks you.
Armstrong was a master at this. He would do it in public, he would do it in private, he would do it whenever he felt it was necessary. Whatever it took to maintain the lie, he would do it.
A scene in the 2004 Tour de France encapsulates this in full.
On the 18th stage, the Italian rider Filippo Simeoni joined the breakaway at the front of the race, in an attempt to win the stage. Armstrong was wearing the yellow jersey of the lead rider of the race, and would not have been expected to join the breakaway at the front.
Yet, that’s exactly what he did.
The reason? Simeoni had testified against the Doctor Michele Ferrari, who had been accused of helping several riders with doping.
One of those riders was Armstrong.
In following Simeoni to the breakaway, Armstrong ensured the group would not make it to the end of the stage. The rest of the riders would not allow Armstrong to gain more minutes over them in the general classification.
But the episode revealed something else. It showed the power Armstrong wielded at this point, and what happened if you crossed him. This was the lie and power in full effect. Looking back, it shows the hubris of a man who believed he was untouchable.
The problem is, every lie comes undone in the end.
The End Of The Lie
When the net was closing in around Armstrong, he was still reticent that he had done nothing wrong.
Nothing encapsulates this more than the picture Armstrong tweeted in late 2012 when his lie began to unravel.
Even when the walls were caving in all around him, Armstrong still tried to maintain the lie, despite the rabbit being out of the hat.
He was unwilling to acknowledge he had lost the power he had successfully wielded for the past decade. This is the image of a man desperately trying to cling on to the power he had worked so hard to attain and then maintain.
The lie had consumed him and he could not contemplate a time when he would not be in control of it.
But, with a lie, that day always comes.
What Armstrong’s story shows us is not how powerful a lie can be, but how power can be lost in an instant.
One minute you have it, the next it is gone. Without power, you are just like everyone else, reduced to the same playing field.
Power is intoxicating, yet, it is also fleeting.
Those who chase it will always end up where they started in the end, powerless.