Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times but he couldn’t shake off Irish journalist David Walsh, who was convinced the American idol was doping
IN THE WINTER of 1973 the England rugby team defied terrorists by turning up at Lansdowne Road to play Ireland.
The home supporters, to a man, clapped the visiting team as they took the field. The din did not die; 50,000 stood, kept pumping their hands hard and when their palms began to tingle, well, they clapped a bit more.
Among that heaving, passion-charged crowd of people sick at the reality of violence being exacted in their name was a teenager called David Walsh, up from Slieverue in south Co. Kilkenny for his first international.
“Every time I think of that now I get emotional,” he says, “it had such an impact on me. It was one of the most astonishing things because sustained applause… it’s a really unusual thing. Sustained cheering is easy, lads chanting or singing is easy. But to just clap, and keep clapping, it’s a totally unnatural thing to do.”
Four decades on, Walsh is sipping tea in a central London bar, 15 floors above ground level. Seven Deadly Sins, My pursuit of Lance Armstrong is released today. A couple of weeks ago, Walsh was the subject — not a participant — of sustained applause at the British Journalism of the Year Awards.
After a rigorous, exhaustive quest to expose Armstrong as a cheat finally ended in substantiation for the Sunday Times chief sportswriter, he won Best Sports Journalist and then the Best Journalist award.
That the ovation stirred the memory of ’73 does not sit easy with Walsh.
“I just felt totally embarrassed,” he says. “I’m saying to them, ‘please stop, please stop, because it’s only me.’”
Dealing with adulation — it’s not an everyday concern for the modern newspaper man. Ducking haymakers from cost-cutting management, sliding out of Leveson’s jabs, dancing with the guard high… journalists are really only conditioned to box off the back foot.
Praise is something they can administer now and again. But to receive it? That’s contrary to nature. Oscar Wilde put it succinctly: “Whenever people agree with me, I think I must be wrong.”
Today, a whole lot of people agree with Walsh. He was right about Armstrong. Many of them weren’t. There’s satisfaction in bringing folks around to your point of view, especially after such a wearying quest for the truth. But as for his new and augmented status…
“At a time when everybody hates journalists, I’m meant to be some kind of beacon. That’s a joke,” he says, almost spits the words out. “Six years ago I would have been the guy quoting Marge Simpson to you: ‘There’s no shame in being a pariah.’”
We discuss how Walsh has just been voted second, behind Martin Samuel, in the Press Gazette’s top 50 sports journalists poll.
“I checked last year’s poll…” I say.
“I’m not listed,” he says. “I don’t think I was doing that much different… You know that saying about a pat on the back being about 18 inches from a kick in the arse…”
The backslapping has been so vigorous, he thinks, because of who was exposed as a result of a 13-year investigation.
“I think the Armstrong story resonated with people. I think that people felt that Armstrong had cheated them in a way that no sports man had ever done to them before. Not only did he say, ‘I’m a great sportsman’, he also said, ‘I’m a great human being, I’m a great humanitarian, I’m the sportsman who goes beyond his sport to bring comfort to the afflicted with cancer’.
“And people bought into that. They gave him a respect that they would never give a normal sportsman. And to realise then that this guy has cynically used that to enrich himself, that was very difficult for people and that’s why I ended up being the recipient of a ridiculous amount of praise, because I don’t deserve anything like the praise I’ve got.”
If the torrents of acclaim threaten to overwhelm Walsh, he can take relief in the fact that one man’s opinion of him is likely to remain the same. Asked if he can foresee a reconciliation with Armstrong, Walsh says: “No, I don’t think so, I think he will always regard me as an effing troll. That will never change.
“He will see this as ‘This effing troll is making more money off me’. He’ll see it as me profiting from him, and it will gall him, there won’t be any element of, ‘Well actually he was a journalist doing his job, and I told a lot of lies about him. He told a lot about me that was the truth’. He won’t see it like that
“It will really annoy him that here I am being lauded for my work in relation to him. That will really hurt him.”
There’s a palpable wallop behind Walsh’s words. This is the day he takes to the plinth to get the word out about Seven Deadly Sins. He’s spent the morning in Salford, doing four interviews with the BBC. He then caught the train to London for some afternoon appointments before an audience at the Sunday Times in the evening. In these circumstances, the author’s inner salesman can hit the wall. I expect to meet a courteous if somewhat fatigued man.
Instead, interviewing Walsh is like starting an avalanche by clearing your throat. He has lived this story for 13 years and 13 years’ worth of polemics come cascading forth — and they begin before I’ve asked a question, before I’ve even sat down. I’d wager he’s been like this with everybody he’s met today… Most other days too.
If Armstrong sees Walsh as an effing troll, then Walsh’s opinion of the individual who dominated the Tour de France from 1999-2005 is similarly low. This got personal a long time ago. Walsh almost walked away from his job as a result of this story. His sources have had their good names soiled by Armstrong, so the writer fought hard to see the job through for the sake of the people who climbed out of the trenches and stepped into rapid fire to speak honestly.
Most pertinently, though, Walsh kept the faith when the sanest thing to do was let go because he had to be true to the memory of his late son, John.
Walsh writes with heartbreaking clarity of a headstrong, deeply inquisitive boy who once called out his teacher on the Nativity story. If Joseph and Mary lived a simple life with the baby Jesus, then what did they do with the gold?
The teacher had no choice but to admit defeat. How could she know? No child had ever asked that before.
John was killed when he was knocked off his bike while cycling home from a Gaelic football game. He was 12 years old. On October 22 last, John would have been 30. That was the date the world realised Armstrong was not who he said he was.
“That the legend of Lance Armstrong should have been officially cremated on this day seems to me anything but coincidental,” Walsh wrote in the Sunday Times.
When your emotion stake is that high you don’t let go. You will push the story to a degree you wouldn’t with any other.
“In 2004 the Sunday Times wanted to publish an extract from LA Confidentiel,” says Walsh. “Then they looked at the extract and thought, ‘This is completely sulphurous. We will just be sued to high heavens.’
“They were going to run four pages of extracts, 11,000 words, and as they’re looking at it, there’s a letter coming in from Schillings. ‘You accuse our client Lance Armstrong… and anything relating to doping and we’ll sue your asses.’
“So that focussed everyone’s minds, the piece was clearly going to be libellous and the Sunday Times decided they couldn’t run the piece as I extracted it from the book.
“I got really upset and saw it [the legally sound version] as completely out of sync with reality. I wasn’t giving any credence to the fact that our libel laws were draconian. It wasn’t anger, just deep disappointment. I resigned from the newspaper. I was incredibly sad. I walked out that evening thinking, I can’t work for this newspaper because I felt they weren’t backing my sources. I felt I was letting them down. They were all English speaking, there was an Irish girl, an American woman, and there was a New Zealand guy. So all their views were going to appear in a French language book [LA Confidentiel] which they would never be able to read and understand. So I thought, I’ll get all their views in the Sunday Times, that’s a reputable newspaper. And then the Sunday Times said ‘No, legally we can’t run this’ and I resigned.
“I drove home that evening, informed the sports editor. It was all very sad. But the deputy sports editor at the time, Alan English, from Limerick, now the Limerick Leader editor, wrote a piece which was almost a synopsis of the extract. It was written in a way that wouldn’t get us into trouble legally, it was passed by the editor of the Sunday Times, passed by the lawyers, passed by the sports editor; they all wanted to support me really. So they put the piece in, I unresigned because there was a piece going in, and then we were sued and it cost us six hundred grand.”
“How’d you feel about that?” I ask.
“I felt bad for the newspaper but of course I’m a journalist so I’m not really a commercial animal. I just think we’ve got to fight the battle at whatever cost, which is a kind of unrealistic attitude I will admit. But I had it.”
Hardening Walsh’s stomach for the scrap was the thought of the treatment suffered by an Irish source of his, Emma O’Reilly — a former masseuse for Armstrong.
“In 2004 when LA Confidentiel came out, he was asked about her allegations. He said, ‘Well, when Emma was in the team there were inappropriate issues involving members of team management, involving riders. And Emma had to leave.’
“Unbelievable. Sexual impropriety — that was the suggestion. And there was another suggestion of alcohol abuse. That was scurrilous, totally untrue. And Emma felt utterly humiliated by that obviously.
“And then Emma said in some interview, ‘This guy put it out there that I was a whore’.
“Two years on Armstrong is in the SCA case, under oath, he’s asked about Emma. Under oath you have certain protection. And he said, ‘Well there were inappropriate issues in the team and Emma herself has described herself as a whore.’ And he left it at that! He didn’t say, ‘That’s how she felt after what I said’.
“That’s not how she thinks about herself. This woman is a very successful business woman, runs her own business in Manchester, a really good person, lives her life in a very correct way. And he could assassinate her character like that and because it was Lance Armstrong it was okay… My attitude was, ‘well Lance, it may be okay in some people’s eyes but it ain’t okay in my eyes.’”
Walsh is emphatic when asked if he ever doubted his conviction that Armstrong was doping.
“No… You can say it’s easy to say that now given the evidence that came out. Hand on heart, I never, ever doubted from that first Tour de France [post cancer treatment, 1999]. I just saw the way he behaved, every answer he gave, every attitude he had, the bullying of [Christophe] Bassons… It was nothing other than the profile of a doper.
“When I first met him , I kinda liked him, I warmed to him. His drive, his ambition, ‘I’m going to be somebody’.
“But as I watched him you could see the profile of the racer he was — he was a one-day racer. He was never meant to go up mountains with the best guys. That’s what doping can do: it can change a guy that should be a donkey in the Tour de France into a thoroughbred. The old drugs would make a guy a better donkey. But he’d still be a donkey.
“Now, the blood doping makes guys who should never be capable of winning the Tour de France, capable of winning the Tour de France.”
“Merckx, Hinault, Anquetil won it in their first year. Lance Armstrong rode the Tour four times [before 1999]. His best position was 36th. He never came near the leaders in the mountain stage.”
Bradley Wiggins finished 124th at his first attempt in 2006. Now he is the defending champion…
“Bradley Wiggins didn’t work with the equivalent of Michele Ferrari. Bradley Wiggins isn’t going around bullying guys who are complaining. I’m inclined to give Wiggins the benefit of the doubt. I believe he did win clean. I also believe we have to continually ask questions, look at Team Sky and don’t presume they’re innocent.
“I stopped going to the Tour de France because I was fed up with wondering how I could write about something I don’t believe in. Team Sky has come along, Dave Brailsford has created this team, many people have lots of questions. Well I want to be right at the front, asking the questions next year.
“But I’m coming to it because I believe they may be clean and I want to confirm or otherwise. Maybe I’ll never know for sure, but I want to give myself the chance of being in there. Because if the Tour de France could come back and cycling, instead of being in the pits of professional sport, was right at the top, and morality came to mean something… it’s such a beautiful sport.”
I have a theory that no matter what happens in a journalist’s career, they never enjoy the job more than they did in the small paper they started out on. Walsh’s byline first appeared in the Leitrim Observer. He became editor of that venerable journal at the age of 25, with a whopping two years’ experience to his name. I find this far more remarkable than any Journalist of the Year gong.
“Far more preposterous,” he says. “It was ridiculous really. Gregory Dunne, who owned the newspaper, was a fan of mine. He wanted to keep me there and this was his way of doing it. I being a complete idiot accepted it and thought I could do it… Circulation didn’t go down or anything like that because Leitrim people would support the Leitrim Observer regardless of what clown was editing it.
“…I’ve always felt that the nicest people I’ve ever met were the Leitrim people. Nicer than Kilkenny people, nicer than Waterford people, nicer than Dublin people, nicer than Westmeath people — I lived in all those places, all great people, but Leitrim people are totally outstanding. I think it was down to, just a modesty. In a way, they’d been considered the poor relations forever. They were the poor relations in Connacht, Connacht is the poor relation of Ireland, and Ireland was the poor relation in Europe, so where did that leave Leitrim? And then, if you were from north Leitrim, you were the poor relations of Leitrim!”
The conversation meanders on to Leitrim carpenter/thespian/poet Seamus O’Rourke, the subject of Walsh’s “most scintillating moment in journalism”.
“A guy called Cathal Farrelly introduced me to Seamus, while he was building a lovely stone fireplace. And Cathal said, ‘Seamus, recite your poem to David,’ and Seamus started off:
‘Lie down flat you Druminchin Hills
For there’s damn-all for you to see
And there’s no one looks at your rushy sides
Or your mossy bottom down at Kelly’s Drain
And what sod you have can go to sleep
For hungry sheep would rather wait to die’
“F**k! Now, you’re looking at your homeland and this is, remember, an expression of your total love of homeland. And this guy is saying ‘Lie down flat ye Druminchin Hills for there’s damn all for ye to see’. He’s talking to the land.
‘And what sod you have can go to sleep, for hungry sheep would rather wait to die’.
“I mean, is that not the best line you’ve ever heard in your life? It’s f**king fantastic. But the point he’s going to get round to in that poem is… you’re mine… all I’ve got.”
As he dwells on O’Rourke’s paean to the marshy green sod of Leitrim, Walsh is not quite in tears, but he’s certainly in the postcode.
“Thirty-four years in journalism and the most interesting interview I’ve ever had is Seamus O’Rourke. I’ll remember him on my deathbed. You ask me to quote the first line of his poem then, I’ll do it for you.”
When the applause fades, and it always does, memories of moments like the Druminchin Hills keep you lit. The maligned old newspaper beat throws up more of these moments than most jobs.
Stick with it long enough, stay true to your story when almost all others have abandoned it, and you just might show people cheats are in far greater jeopardy for barrels of the ink and pulped dead trees; that the world needs more, not less, effing trolls.