A PACKED Lime Tree Theatre listened in rapt attention this week as crusading Irish journalists Paul Kimmage and David Walsh discussed their role in the downfall of cyclist Lance Armstrong.
The 510-seater venue in Mary Immaculate College was completely full for the Whistleblowers event, organised and moderated by Limerick Leader editor Alan English, a former colleague of the duo at The Sunday Times, where they played a central role in confronting the American as the greatest fraud in sporting history.
All of the proceeds from the event will be donated to two Limerick charities – Cycle 4 Sick Children and the Simon Community.
This was a prized opportunity to hear the journalists discuss their lives and careers from their first encounter in the early 1980s, through their travails with Armstrong and the ostracisation that followed, to being thrust to the fore in recent months as he was stripped of his titles and banished from the sport he tarnished.
Yet neither journalist sees the Armstong saga as the concluding chapter in a story that has yet to unfold and which they believe involves those at the highest levels of a sport still deeply under suspicion.
“Everybody has legitimate questions,” said Kimmage in the debate that ensued. “Cycling needs to change its administrators, unless that happens, there is no hope for the sport, to start again, they need to do that first.”
Kilkenny-born Walsh, a four-time Irish Sports Journalist of the Year who was recently voted overall Journalist of the Year in the UK in recognition of his work on exposing Armstrong, recently released his latest book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong. It tells of his dogged attempts to unmask the seven-time Tour de France winner and the toll it took on him over a 13-year period.
The book framed the debate, which was a wide-ranging one about cycling and issues of doping in other sports, taking in a discussion of Irish cyclists Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly and swimmer Michelle de Bruin along the way, right up to the current state of cycling, led by British standard bearer Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky, who have allowed Walsh unprecedented access to their team.
The level of interest in the event was huge, with tickets selling out quickly, a fact replicated in both Ireland and the UK, but Walsh has previously said of this interest: “I don’t think it is an appetite for me. It is an appetite for the story of Armstrong. It fascinates people.”
When Kimmage spoke in the Woodfield House Hotel last year, there was huge interest then. The Dubliner was quick to pay tribute to the crowd that turned up to hear this latest debate.
“I thought the venue and the audience were terrific, and it was a great thrill to see Paul O’Connell in the crowd,” he said.
“The interest in this story has been phenomenal and will hopefully act as a wake-up call to all those who govern and administrate sports. And to those who write about it. The truth matters. Clean sport matters.”
Walsh told the Limerick Leader in a recent interview that “there are standards that you have to observe in the process of trying to win, and if you don’t observe those standards, the victory means less”.
Both men took up this point up during the riveting debate, which was followed by extensive questions from the crowd afterward.
They make an intriguing double act, Walsh and Kimmage, the former more forensic in manner and outlay of evidence, the latter more earthy and fond of emotive language, castigating his friend of 30 years without compunction in one moment, yet praising him in another.
Speaking later, Walsh said: “Afterwards I spoke to people who had travelled from Sligo, Galway, Waterford, Killarney and Cork and was staggered they’d made such an effort. ‘Thank God,’ I thought, ‘that it all went off okay,’ and that nearly everyone talked about how much they had enjoyed the evening. The Lime Tree setting was just perfect.”