Acclaimed sports journalist David Walsh will soon speak to a full house at Limerick’s new Lime Tree Theatre about his pivotal role in the epic Lance Armstrong saga, joined on stage by fellow doubter Paul Kimmage. He talks to Alan Owens about his 13-year pursuit of the shamed cyclist.
DAVID Walsh has no truck with the mentality of winning at all costs.
Instead The Sunday Times’ chief sports writer, who has played a pivotal role in helping to reveal American cyclist Lance Armstrong as the greatest fraud in sporting history, believes that standards should be observed in the process of trying to win, and that if they are not, the “victory means less”.
The decorated Kilkenny-born journalist, no stranger to controversy in Limerick circles having provoked the ire of Young Munster fans with his criticism of Peter Clohessy when the prop was sent off in for stamping in Paris in 1996, refers to the stomach-churning moment in the Heineken Cup final of 2002 when bogeyman Neil Back knocked the ball from Peter Stringer’s hand as he waited to put in at a scrum, thus denying Munster a last gasp attempt at the Leicester try line.
While clearly not equating Back’s unsporting gesture to sins as great as Armstrong’s, he uses it to illustrate his point, a romantic one about sport and its rules of conduct. He believes Back’s role “took a little bit from Leicester’s victory, it removed the sheen slightly.
“I believe 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,” he says.
“In other words, when people were doping in sport, they were trying to convince you afterwards that this victory meant as much to them as if they had been clean, but it didn’t.The meaning for me of the Armstrong story is that how you win does matter, it really does.”
Walsh will discuss this meaning at length at an event in Limerick’s Lime Tree Theatre later this month with his friends and colleagues Paul Kimmage – the former cyclist turned journalist who also tackled Armstrong, in memorable circumstances – and Alan English, editor of this newspaper, who worked with Walsh at The Sunday Times and was sued by the now disgraced Armstrong over a 2004 piece he wrote about Walsh’s pursuit of him.
Tickets have flown out the door for the Limerick Leader-promoted event as fast as the peloton moves in the Tour de France, a race Walsh fell in love with in 1982. Just a handful for the 510-seat theatre remained on sale this Wednesday night and they were expected to disappear quickly. All proceeds are going to two good Limerick causes – Cycle 4 Sick Children and the Simon Community.
When Paul Kimmage spoke at the city’s Woodfield House Hotel last year, there was huge interest. It is a story that resonates.
“I know from the evenings we are doing – the ones in Limerick, Dublin, Portsmouth – that the tickets are flying and that is a real indication that people have an appetite,” says 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.
“I don’t think it is an appetite for me,” he says. “It is an appetite for the story of Armstrong. Honestly, this is not me or Alan or Paul, it is the Armstrong story. It fascinates people. It is people who have been involved in this story for a long time and the audience will be hoping to get some questions answered.
“I think Limerick will be great fun and I am really looking forward to it. Alan tells me the Lime Tree is a fantastic theatre, so I think it will be a great night.”
The events in both Dublin and Limerick will be moderated by Alan English and questions will be invited from the audience. When Walsh spoke at a venue in London late last year, “the hands shot up”, which astonished the seasoned journalist.
“Even though I spoke for about 40 minutes and thought I had answered all the questions, clearly I had only scratched the surface,” he laughs. “What people keep on asking is how could Lance Armstrong could have got away with it for so long – and that is a story I can make a stab at telling. I thought it was obvious that he was doping, but I sure couldn’t convince people and there were plenty of people covering up for him. People who were protecting his secret and helping him to protect it – there is no doubt about that.”
Probing deeper, Walsh uses a literary metaphor to try and explain the public fascination with the seven time Tour de France winner, who as of October 2012 has been stripped of his titles and seen his reputation reduced to tatters, as well as being sued, including by The Sunday Times who were forced to settle an action with the cyclist after Alan English’s now vindicated article.
“If I said to you, who is the most famous character ever created in literature? Who is the hero or anti-hero that most resonated with readers down through the years? I would argue that it is Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and Lance was a bit of a sporting Heathcliff,” Walsh says.
“He fascinated people, even though they felt there was a dark side for a long time, and when the dark side was exposed it turned out to be darker than anyone imagined. But people are fascinated by stories that reveal the darker side of human nature – it is why Heathcliff will always be one of the great characters in literature.”
Walsh first encountered this sporting Heathcliff face to face in 1993 when the young American was a novice on the Tour. The journalist liked the young Texan, could see a burning desire to win. He told Kimmage excitedly about the rider: “You have got to see this kid!”
It would be the start of an evolving relationship that quickly changed. Walsh, whose love for the Tour had begun to fall asunder by 1999, had started to question everything. He watched with growing disbelief as the brash Armstrong, who in four previous finishes in the race had never bettered a 36th placing and arrived at that 1999 Tour having conquered testicular cancer, powered his way to victory.
The story is compellingly told in his book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, and it’s one that is personal as well as forensic. It tells of the journalist’s dogged attempts to unmask Armstrong and the toll it took on him over a 13-year period. It is eyeopening to see and review how he was treated at the Texan’s hands. Armstrong publicly referred to Walsh as the ‘Little Troll’ and did his best to discredit Walsh and hurt his career.
The book is also filled with the stories of the supporting cast of characters that helped The Sunday Times to reveal Armstrong as a doper, willing to “win at all costs” and to step on and bully whoever stood in his way.It was the treatment of his team-mates and friends, as much as the scientific investigation into his activities, that caused Armstrong’s downfall.
“I think Lance is a very smart guy intellectually.Analytically he was a very strong leader within the team because he was very decisive,” says Walsh.
“I think his decision-making was pretty good, in terms of strategy for the race, choosing his lieutenants, knowing what kind of training programme they needed to be on, understanding that they had to have really good doping programme – all of that stuff he managed really, really well.
“The bit that he didn’t do well was to have the emotional intelligence to say, ‘These are human beings.’ There is always a danger that that kind of inability to treat people properly is going to hurt you, and it certainly hurt him. Lance in my eyes doesn’t have a great level of emotional intelligence and I think we saw that in the Oprah Winfrey interview where, my feeling was, he knew had to show remorse and he couldn’t do it in a convincing way.
“And that is a tough, tough place to be,” he adds.
“Lots of cyclists doped - now Armstrong might have been a better doper than most, but there was only one guy who savaged his adversaries, and that was Armstrong. That is one of things that distinguished him from all the other people who cheated, the way he treated those who dared to ask questions.”
Walsh is expecting to answer plenty of questions of his own at the Lime Tree – and he’s looking forward to it.
The Limerick Leader presents ‘Whistleblowers’ at the Lime Tree on February 25. A limited number of tickets remain for the event, proceeds from which will go to local charities Cycle 4 Sick Children and the Simon Community. See Lime Tree for tickets.