08 Aug 2022

How relentless David slew cycling’s Goliath

IT WAS A DOGGED pursuit that lasted for more than a decade. Despite the accusations that came his way, David Walsh never lost focus.

IT WAS A DOGGED pursuit that lasted for more than a decade. Despite the accusations that came his way, David Walsh never lost focus.

The proud Kilkennyman, a Slieverue native, has been a sportswriter for many years, but most recently saw his name involved in a story that took up more than the back pages of newspapers around the globe.

For close on 13 years Walsh was involved in a campaign to get American cyclist Lance Armstrong to come clean about being involved in a doping scandal which had followed him ever since he won the first of his seven Tour de France titles in 1999.

At times, the road was a lonely one. Walsh was often castigated for his beliefs, left to fight what seemed an uphill battle. However, everything changed when a recent investigation carried out by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) found Armstrong guilty of doping offences. The Agency subsequently stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and gave him a worldwide ban from the sport.

Naturally, such a punishment meant the story has dominated papers over the last few months, catapulting Walsh into the spotlight as one of the main campaigners for justice. However, it also brought due recognition for the writer.

Walsh, the chief sportswriter with The Sunday Times, was named Sports Journalist and Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards in London just before Christmas.

It was a double honour for a man who followed the reporter’s belief of trusting his gut - but even he felt there was a stage when Armstrong looked like getting away with it all.

“If I’m honest, I always thought that he was going to get away with it,” said Walsh with alarming honesty. “Armstrong had a lot of people who were trying to protect him.

“In the world of sport people say we build sports stars up and then we quickly want to tear them down. I don’t believe that’s the case; I believe that a lot of the time we build people up and try to convince ourselves that they’re beyond reproach, no matter what. Sometimes the winner gets the benefit of the doubt far more than the loser.”

That belief that Armstrong was getting away with cheating was one of the things that spurred Walsh on. So too was the idea that others were being cheated out of glory themselves.

Fuelled my motivation

“If there was one thing that fuelled my motivation about the Armstrong story it was that there were guys riding cleanly who were being screwed and nobody gave a toss about them,” he said. “It was almost like they were doing the moral thing, playing within the rules, but in professional sport that made them losers.

“It was like ‘why don’t they get with the programme, why don’t they do what everyone else is doing? - why are they trying to be the moral guy?’. Well, the rules are there and these guys were playing by the rules. The disadvantage was that they had come from families which promoted good values, parents who said it’s not right to cheat.

“For that they were basically vilified,” said Walsh. “Professional sport treated them as complete idiots. My argument was that if journalists are not on the side of the guy playing by the rules, then we shouldn’t be journalists.”

The Kilkenny People had the chance to speak with Walsh recently. In an interview lasting almost an hour, he spoke of a life-long love of sport and his campaign to bring to light the truth surrounding a man who was once known as the most powerful sportsman on the planet.

It was a story where the first chapter began with Walsh going down the traditional route in journalism as a cub reporter with the Leitrim Observer.

“I spent two years in Leitrim and was very sorry to leave,” he said. “I’ve always said that the nicest people I met were Leitrim people.

“I had a great time there, got on really well and met some lovely friends. They were terrific. Maybe it was because Leitrim was full of Leitrim people - if you go to Dublin it’s full of people from all over Ireland and beyond, likewise if you’re in Kilkenny there are people from the county and outside it who live there.

“Leitrim was full of its own people when I was there in the late 1970s and I had a fantastic time there,” he recalled. “If it wasn’t for the fact that I wanted to work in sports journalism exclusively I don’t think I would have ever have left.”

The desire to be a sportswriter wasn’t something new.

“From the age of six I wanted to be a sportswriter,” he said. “People might say I’m exaggerating, but from a very early age I used to read the newspapers and I loved writing. Sport was my absolute passion. I used to read John D. Hickey in the Independent - in my youth I used to look upon him as a great hurling reporter. I would have read all the hurling reports, all the soccer, rugby - every sport. Horse-racing was a passion of mine.

“It was all I ever wanted to be, all I ever wanted to do,” he said of sportswriting. “I went to UCD to study English solely because I thought it would help me to become a better journalist. It’s all I’ve done since 1978.”

Sport wasn’t just about reading and writing for him - it also provided a little piece of history!

“I played a tiny bit of hurling growing up, but I wasn’t much good!” he said. “I was an ok soccer player and rugby player, a decent runner, but I wasn’t a good hurler. Anyway, I went to Leitrim and in my first week there I met a guy called Martin Kennedy from Waterford who worked at Leitrim County Council. I didn’t know the guy from adam, but he rang me and asked “Is your name David Walsh?” to which I replied it was. He asked was I the new reporter with The Observer, to which again I said yes.”

Then came the third question from the caller.

“Martin then said “Would you play in a county semi-final on Sunday?”” Walsh recalled, laughing at the memory. “I said in what sport and he said hurling. I told him “You’ve got the wrong man, I’m not a hurler at all”, but he said “Are you David Walsh from Kilkenny?” I said ‘I am’ and he said “you’ll do us!”

It turned out to be a winning start to life in Leitrim.

“I did play in that county semi-final against Allen Gaels and I scored a point!” Walsh said, smiling at the memory. “We won the game, beating Drumshanbo 3-1 to 1-3 and went on to win the county final. I have a county senior championship medal in hurling, something which not a lot of people know about!

“It’s a funny story, but the fact that I was from Kilkenny meant that an otherwise intelligent schoolteacher thought I was worthy enough of a place in a team playing in a county semi-final.”

It was a nice way to start career in Leitrim, but even Walsh knew his limits.

“We drew Castlegar in the Connacht championship,” he recalled. “They had Galway heroes John, Joe and Michael Connolly in their team - I was unavailable for that game!”

It’s a great achievement to still be doing something you love for so long and still have an interest in it.

Watching sport

“Even now I’m always watching sport,” he said. “Sundays are my day off now, but I’ve spent them watching rugby and football games. Like a lot of people I think the weekend is for sport. You might get funny looks for saying that you’ve spent your day off watching sport, but in our house it’s accepted that if there’s anything half-decent on TV in sports terms that I’m likely to be watching it.”

Following his time in Leitrim Walsh worked for a number of national papers including The Irish Press, Sunday Tribune and Sunday Independent.

“I was with The Sunday Times in Ireland from 1996 to 1998,” he recalled. “In June 1998 I was asked to come over to England. The editor’s feeling was that he could see me becoming the chief sportswriter one day, but I would have to be based in England if that was the case. My wife was very keen to give it a go, so we moved the entire family over.”

The prospect was huge, but came with plenty of risk.

“It was a big move, one that came without guarantees,” he said. “I did have a good break before coming though. In 1996 I was working mostly for the Irish edition of the Times and had about six or seven articles that the English would consider the main edition of the paper (the London paper). Somebody in London entered me in the competition for the UK Sports Journalist of the Year.

“I wrote an article on the boxer Francis Barrett before he went to the Olympics in Atlanta and the English judges decided that it was good enough to win the competition - even though I was living in Ireland at the time! I really only had a peripheral involvement in the London Times at that stage, so when that happened everything changed. In the sense, if you win something people look at you differently. I benefitted from that.

“In 1998 sports editor Alex Butler asked me to come over,” he added. “We did and have never looked back.”

The stories of Walsh’s career at the Times and Lance Armstrong are almost intertwined. Having followed the 1999 Tour de France, Walsh’s first instincts that something was wrong with Armstrong’s feats were aired in a piece which ran on the day that the American was poised to cycle to his first Tour title.

“This afternoon I will be keeping my arms by my side,” Walsh wrote back in 1999, “because I’m not sure this is something we should be applauding.”

Little did he know it then, but that article would be the first step in a long journey.

So much of Walsh’s 14 years with the Times has involved with the Lance Armstrong story. Looking at it from an outsider’s point of view, it’s amazing that it has taken as long to come to the level it has, but Walsh never wavered in his beliefs.

“I went to the Tour de France in 1999 and was utterly convinced that he was doping,” he said of what would prove to be the first step in 13-year battle. “I just thought that I was going to keep trying to bring the full story to light.”

However, a lot of people were content to sweep it under the carpet. For his part in the campaign to bring Armstrong to justice Walsh was ostracised by a section of the press corps, with many keeping their distance from him.

“The guys I was travelling with in the Tour de France told me they couldn’t take in the car with them even though I was there and was linking up with the Tour and had been in the press-room the day before the race started,” he said. “They (the reporters) said they felt it would be bad for them, that they’d have no access to Armstrong, if I was seen in their car.

Low point

“Basically, they left me on the side of the road,” he said. “That was a low point. In a way they were doing what they felt was the right thing, but that’s how twisted the world had become at the time, and how powerful Armstrong had become. He was incredibly powerful.”

There was a stage where Armstrong would have been seen as the most powerful sportsperson in the world. Having come back from a life-threatening illness to win the Tour de France seven times and to deny drug claims for so long Armstrong took on a powerful persona which grew even more given the company he was often seen with.

“People might think you’re exaggerating when you say he was powerful, but it’s not,” agreed Walsh. “He had access to the most powerful man in the world - he used to go for mountain bike rides with George W. Bush, he played golf with Bill Clinton and he was friendly with John Kerry. He had unbelievable contacts. He used to go for lunch with Nicolas Sarkozy in France. The extent of his power and influence was incredible, but thankfully he didn’t get away with it. It would have been so wrong if he had.”

As he said earlier, there was a time when Walsh felt the truth would never come out.

“When Armstrong won his seventh Tour de France in 2005 he made his valedictory speech on the Champs Elysees,” he recalled. “Back then Armstrong said how he felt sorry for all the people who couldn’t believe in his achievements and then rode off into the sunset.

“Now, if he’d stayed there and didn’t come back he would never have been caught.

“It’s like you watch all those movies where the guy has been a brilliant at getting away with whatever - whether it’s holding up banks or being a getaway driver - and somebody comes to him and asks him to do one last job,” Walsh added. “Of course, that’s what undoes the guy in the films. It was the same with Armstrong - I believe he came back in 2009 for financial reasons. He got offside with (cyclist) Floyd Landis and Landis went public with a lot of stuff.

“People might say that ‘you didn’t have much influence on this, it was because Landis came clean’. That was the big event but the work I had done along with others like Pierre Ballester, my co-author on the French book LA Confidentiel, raised a lot of suspicion on Armstrong and doubt about him.

“When the Floyd Landis story came out it was like people began to think that all those suspicions now seemed to be true. But, if Landis’ complaint had come in a vacuum people would have said he was mad, but there was already a lot of doubt about Armstrong - a lot of people didn’t believe him at that stage.

“It was great that the truth did come out because a lot of people had put their necks on the line to testify against him, people I would have considered my best sources. I was delighted that they were vindicated.

Never doubted

“I never doubted that I was wrong to believe that he was a doper,” he said. “People might have asked how I could have been so sure, but I would tell any of those people that if they had travelled in the car with me on the 1999 Tour de France when Armstrong won for the first time and if your mind was open, then you would have stepped out of the car absolutely knowing that he was cheating,” said Walsh. “It was as obvious as that.”

Working on the publication of a new book (Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong) helped Walsh relive all his earliest memories of the story, reinforcing his beliefs from day one.

“I revisited the whole 1999 Tour for the book,” Walsh recalls. “The remarkable thing is that anyone thought he was clean - when you go back on it it’s so, so obvious.”

So what helped him get away for so long?

“What Armstrong had in his favour in 1999 was that he was such a good-will story,” says Walsh. “The Tour de France had had a disastrous time in 1998 (The entire Festina team was thrown out of the Tour for doping offences) that when it came to 1999 everyone was worried about how the public would react. Suddenly, you get this cancer survivor winning the Tour.

“That was Armstrong’s strong shield - he used cancer as a shield from the accusations. He would often say things like ‘do you think that after what I’ve been through that I’d put those drugs in my body - do you really believe that?’ “Everyone found that to be a very convincing argument. Maybe I’m an incredible sceptic, but my attitude was that ‘yeah Lance, I do believe that’ because the drugs you need for cycling (EPO, growth hormones, steroids) are the drugs that people use post-cancer for rehabilitation.

“They’re not like cowboy drugs that don’t have conventional medical uses,” Walsh added. “They have huge use in the conventional world of medicine and Armstrong had used these in his recovery. There was no big deal him putting that stuff in his body because it didn’t have such huge side-effects.”

The truth finally came to light this year. Despite all the accusations aimed at him Walsh never felt the need to say ‘I told you so’ to people.

“I don’t feel vindicated,” he said. “I’m delighted that the truth came out, but I think you would only feel vindicated if you had a slight doubt about something and then the truth came out. Honestly, my gut feeling told me I was right from a long, long time out. If that sounds arrogant I apologise, but when it came out I was glad because the truth is worth something.

“It’s nice to be able to say to young people that if you cheat, you may not get away with it,” he added. “You may be caught, and the price of being caught may be greater than the reward that you gained while cheating. I think it’s turned out to be a good story, and I do have great respect for America as a country. They had somebody who won the Tour de France seven times. They investigated him and they brought him down - USADA brought their seven-times Tour winner down.

“I look at the reaction to Michelle Smith when she won her three gold medals in Atlanta and how there was almost a feeling in Ireland that we didn’t want to know if this girl had used performance-enhancing drugs. I look at France - would they bring down their own five-time champion Bernard Hinault? Never. Would Belgium bring down Eddie Merckx? Not a chance. If someone in England had doubts about Mo Farah, would they go after him ? I doubt it. But, America went after Armstrong and fair dues to them.”

The Americans had that conviction. So too did Walsh, many of which kept him from feeling the full force of the public’s perceptions.

“When I was going back on the archival stuff I saw all the letters the paper got in about the Armstrong saga,” he said. “Every time I wrote a piece on it the Sunday Times would print a sample of the letters they received. The letters were incredibly against me, pretty much every one of them. When the Times printed a representation of the letters - they might print three that came to the sports editor - they were always negative towards me.

“At the time I used to look at the letters and say I’d read those letters and say ‘they haven’t a clue! - how can they believe Armstrong?’,” he said. “I had a ‘water off a duck’s back’ attitude to it all. I read those letters again a few months ago, letters which had been written 12 years ago, and I thought ‘how did I survive all that?’

“When I read those letters 12 years later they really deflated me,” he admitted. “It seemed that every reader we had thought I was a complete moron for going down this route, but at the time it never bothered me.”

That almost blinkered attitude showed how involved Walsh was in the story. He could only see Armstrong’s guilt - nothing else from the sidelines got in his way. However, support was always there when it was needed.

Support group

“I had become very good friends with some of my sources, people who had helped me,” he said. “We would ring each other all the time, we were like a little support group for each other. We were always trying to get new leads, to get more people to come out in the open, to get people to do interviews to bring things out there.”

Since being found guilty by USADA in August, Armstrong has had a rapid fall from grace.

“It’s like when you see a pyramid of cards and you take one away - they all crumble at the same time,” said Walsh. “That’s how it happened with the Armstrong story. The USADA report came out, his sponsors started deserting him and then the International Cycling Union (UCI) had its say to state that Armstrong has no place in cycling and suddenly he becomes a pariah. Basically he and I swapped places!”

Leading that quest for the truth also saw Walsh earn the honour of being named the Sports Journalist and Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards in London in December.

The judges praised Walsh for his coverage of the Lance Armstrong story.

“David Walsh became a pariah for years in his chosen sport in order to get to the truth of this story,” said the judges in their verdict. “He pursued it and pursued it. The USADA would never have taken Armstrong on it hadn’t been for David Walsh. It was a fine example of investigative journalism.”

They were just as lavish in their praise for his second award, the Journalist of the Year.

“In one of the greatest years for British sport the judges thought it fitting that the pre-eminent candidate for overall journalist of the year was a sports journalist” they said. “David Walsh’s investigation into doping by Lance Armstrong was not just a great story - it was huge. His 13-year investigation was dogged, determined and brave. He could have lost everything but persisted against the odds.”

The awards were a happy ending to the 13-year tale for Walsh.

“It was an incredible feeling,” he said of the night. “It was wonderful.

“The awards were presented in a place called Stationers Hall (a venue on Fleet Street in London - the traditional home of the English press), an old hall which is about 100 yards from St Paul’s Cathedral. This hall was one of the most magnificent buildings I’ve ever seen in my life.

“When I went up to receive the first award, everyone had been going up and getting 10 or 15 seconds of applause, which was all very polite and respectful. When I went up and got my award the crowd - and it was not a sports crowd, but people from all sections of the media - started clapping. This has nothing to do with me, but the resolution of the Armstrong story, that had engaged so many people. They started clapping and clapping, I had to say a few words and I had to wait. I suppose it went on for more than a minute - if you’ve ever heard people clapping for that long it feels like forever.

“As a kid I went to Lansdowne Road and the first rugby international I ever saw was the game between Ireland and England in 1973 when the English came to Dublin at the height of the Troubles, a time when Scotland and Wales refused to do so. England were under pressure not to come, but they came. When they ran on the pitch the applause went on for four to five minutes.

“It was staggering, easily the most exhilarating moment I’ve experienced in a stadium,” he said. “When I was up waiting to speak at those awards it felt like that - it might have really been just 40 seconds’ applause, but it was amazing.”

So what now for the man who tracked Armstrong for all those years? There might be a break from chasing sportstars as far as one cause is concerned, but there is another one close to Walsh’s heart.

“Next is 10 All-Irelands for Henry Shefflin,” he said. “That’s what I want to see now.”

Typically for a Kilkennyman, hurling plays a huge part in Walsh’s links to his native county.

“One of the things I would always say is that when you leave Ireland and you live abroad, you need reason to bring you back. Too often it’s a family wedding or funeral - one is a happy occasion, the other a sad one, but when Kilkenny get into an All-Ireland final I always get back. I meet my brothers, we talk hurling and we have a great time. Kilkenny have been winning all these titles and we have so many fantastic days in Dublin.

Greatest team

“My honest belief is that the team that Brian Cody has created has been the greatest team I’ve ever seen,” he added. “I don’t mean team as in 15 players - I mean a team that has been able to start winning and keep winning, then lose and come back and win again, a team that has been able to reinvent itself every so often when it needed to. I’ve never seen a team with a hunger that is so unrelenting.”

Having Tipperary as the opposition only added to the winning feeling.

“I grew up in the era of Tipp teams which had John Doyle and Sean McLoughlin in them,” he said. “What they did to Kilkenny teams had a traumatic effect on me!

“When Tipp beat Kilkenny in 2010 a lot of people thought a new order had been created. However, when the final whistle blew in the 2010 final I had a sense that the preparation for 2011 had already begun. When Tipp celebrated, you felt there were Kilkenny players there soaking that up to use as motivation for next year.

“The thing about Kilkenny is, like most great teams, they know where to take their motivation from,” he said. “A lot of the time it is imagined - something is written in a newspaper by a journalist on a bad day and that’s used as evidence to fuel you, or a member of the opposition says something.

“Maybe even it was the way Tipp celebrated in 2010 - it was largely respectful, but if you’re from Kilkenny you’re going to see that in a way that will fuel your motivation. I felt Kilkenny were brilliant all through that 2011 campaign. That’s why the 2011 final, to me, was sensational. It was a tremendous achievement for the players and Cody, one of the most extraordinary figures in the game.”

Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh is published by Simon & Schuster Ltd and is available now.

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