We want to believe in greatness, however, the fact remains, from diving to doping, cheating is prevalent in sport.
As journalists, it’s important to ask the tough questions, even if it means being ostracized by colleagues, athletes, fans and readers.
In the case of Lance Armstrong, the tough questions needed to be asked. A cancer survivor who recovered to win seven-straight Tour de France titles. Rumours long-circulated around the sincerity of his achievements.
One Irish journalist was at the coalface throughout with his pursuit of the truth lasting over a decade until Armstrong’s public confession in 2013.
A Reputation Scorned
David Walsh had his reputation scorned, both by Armstrong and his millions of followers. How dare he go after someone who overcame a crippling illness to achieve one of the greatest feats in sporting history.
However, the truth is that Armstrong’s achievements were never a great feat but rather a great cheat. Walsh never wilted and despite the Sunday Times having settled a libel case, he always knew he was right.
“At the time, that seemed easy (staying on Armstrong’s trail) because I knew I was right.
“I remember when the Sunday Times settled with them. Now, when I say settled, the truth is the Sunday Times fought the good fight for two years, it cost £750,000 in legal fees and they bailed out.
“They bailed out for the very good reason that under UK libel laws, we were destined to lose. If they bailed out when they did, we’re probably going to lose £1 million. If we stay in there for another two years, we lose £5 million if it actually goes to a full court hearing. So they bailed out.”
Walsh felt defeated following the initial libel case. The Sunday Times’ settlement meant he had to drop his pursuit of Armstrong completely.
However, a chat with former sports editor, Alex Butler, gave him hope. Hope that eventually turned into reality.
“I was really down about that because what bothered me was that once you capitulate to somebody in a libel battle and he wins as Armstrong did, well, you are now precluded from raising virtually anything about the guy. That would be regarded as aggravating the original libel.
“You’ve already libelled him. You’ve settled out of court and here you are going back there. My boss, Alex Butler, at the time used to say to me, ‘David, don’t worry, your day will come. This story ain’t over.’
“Alex’s belief was that Americans like to talk. They are not like Russians. They’re not brilliant at keeping secrets. He said, ‘in this country, somebody will have a born-again Christian conversion. They’ll end up on Oprah Winfrey or somewhere else. And they will want to tell the true story of what happened.’
“That’s how it worked out. As soon as we got the right to write about the story again, which came with Floyd Landis’ great emails in May 2010. I was back on that horse quicker than any jockey has ever climbed aboard a thoroughbred.”
Conversations with Kimmage
Walsh questioned Armstrong’s achievements following his maiden tour win in 1999. Over the course of several years thereafter, he along with acclaimed journalist and former cyclist Paul Kimmage stayed hot on the heels of cycling’s golden boy.
However, even Kimmage could see the negative effect the story was having on Walsh’s personal life.
“I remember Paul Kimmage pulling me to one side at the 2005 Open Championship at St. Andrews. He said, ‘look, you’re allowing this Armstrong thing to become really obsessive, it’s affecting your family life. As a friend, I think you should back off.’
“I’m saying to Paul, ‘I totally understand what you’re saying and I can’t deny that it’s become a big thing in my head. I will try to get a bit of a better perspective on this.’”
However, what kept Walsh going throughout was simple. The pursuit of Lance Armstrong was the story of his life and he loved it.
“I kept going because… I use this answer all the time and it sounds dreadfully pompous but I don’t mean it to be.
“Mine was a tiny version of what they went through, but it’s like asking Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein, why did you stay on the trail of (Richard) Nixon?
“When everybody was saying you were idiots when every other newspaper wouldn’t report what you were reporting, why did you stay on the trail? They would have said because it was the best story of our lives.
“I would say exactly the same. I stayed on it because I loved it.”
Story of his life
A year after that conversation with Kimmage, Walsh began working on his book; From Lance to Landis: The Inside Story of American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France.
Unlike his previous publication alongside Pierre Ballester LA Confidential, which was only published in French. From Lance to Landis made its way to the American market.
It presented the bulk of Armstrong’s support with factual evidence that not only was he a liar but he was also a ring-leader. For Walsh, this was the most satisfying moment of all.
“A year after that conversation with Paul, I started working on From Lance to Landis and in 2007, that came out in America. That was probably the most satisfying moment of all getting that book out in America.
“John Kerry, the Democrat and Presidential candidate at one time, he was a big fan of Armstrong’s and he read it and was no longer a fan.
“Of those guys who would do the investigation, Jeff Novitzky and Jeff Miller, the Food and Drug Administration detectives, they read from Lance to Landis and they knew Armstrong was a doper.
“So when they got the opportunity to get into this story, they were in there like a flash.”
Never Give Up
For Walsh, giving up was never an option. His pursuit of Armstrong lasted 13 years until eventually, justice prevailed.
“Giving up was never even something I had to deal with.
“I was having the journalistic time of my life. So, if I could use that Oscar Wilde line and paraphrase it slightly. The Oscar Wilde line is; ‘the suspense is terrible. I hope it lasts.’ My line would have been. ‘This story is terrible. I hope it goes on.’”
And on it goes. 21 years after Walsh’s initial questions, this story is one that keeps on giving. Films have been shot, documentaries made, and all you need mention is the name, Lance and everyone knows the subject matter.
Without the grit, determination and perseverance of David Walsh, that wouldn’t have been possible.
The Russian Affair: The True Story of the Couple who Uncovered the Greatest Sporting Scandal, the new book from acclaimed author and award-winning journalist David Walsh was released for general sale on July 24. Stay tuned to punditarena.com for our official interview with David on this sensational story.