Interview With David Walsh
On October 22, 2012, the USADA put the nail in the coffin for Lance Armstrong’s career. This also brought closure to the past 13 years of Sunday Times’ chief sports writer David Walsh’s tireless pursuit for the truth. It would have been a lonely journey at times, but you can say that it was worth it. You could argue that David Walsh was the man responsible for exposing the biggest sports fraud in history.
Many of you may be tired of hearing about Lance Armstrong in the media, but it’s a story with so many angles, layers, and ethical dilemmas, there’s always something new. Last week David Walsh released his third book on Lance Armstrong called “Seven Deadly Sins.” It’s not a book that rehashes everything he’s written in From Landis to Lance or LA Confidential. It’s the story about his search for the truth on an issue that was a central part of his life for 13 years and earned Walsh Journalist of the Year award last week.
I spoke on the phone to David last night where he answered all my questions without a hint of bitterness in spite of everything he went through in his role to uncover the truth.
[CyclingTips] When you were blacklisted by Lance Armstrong, what was the treatment towards you by other journalists during that time?
[David Walsh] I always had some friends, and that should be said. But for some other guys I was the thorn in their side. What I mean by that, when I was asking questions about Lance, I was raising something they didn’t want to raise, and that made some slightly uncomfortable. As a result, they’d see me coming and they’d kind of look the other way and hope I wouldn’t stop and have a conversation. The way I was then, I was very much a rebel with a cause and I wanted to convince everybody of my point of view. That was the time I wouldn’t have been happy to just say hello. If I stopped and spoke to guys I would work the conversation around Lance Armstrong and how they justified supporting him or not asking questions. That of course was an uncomfortable conversation for them and one they didn’t want to have.
Having said that I wasn’t a complete pariah and there was always people I was friendly with. For most of the Tours I was on I’d travel in the car I’d have people like Rupert Guinness (Sydney Morning Herald) and Rupert and I would have been friends all of the time, we would have never fallen out. I would have been aggressively asking questions and he would have had some doubts, but he wouldn’t have aggressively asked questions. But it didn’t mean we fell out and it didn’t mean we couldn’t discuss it. He supported me quite a bit, I know it sounds daft, but if someone sat beside me at a press conference they were making a big statement. It was that intimidation, in terms of when Rupert sat beside me, he knew that he was going to be in trouble with the US Postal team and that he would get that blacklist. But he did site along side me, and at the time that constituted important support.
[CT] Did you ever think that this was all getting too hard for those 13 years?
[DW] No, no…never. Not even close. Because, the newspaper was totally supportive, the Sunday Times. I use and expression in the book, I was fuelled by the ecstasy of the sanctimonious. I was convinced that I was right and what I was doing worthwhile and that I was behaving as a journalist. As a result I didn’t really ever thing I was not going to do this. There were times in 2002 as I mentioned in the book, I hadn’t broken any new Armstrong stories in the book and I was almost worried that Armstrong may have thought I had given up. So with a friend of mine from Denmark, Ollav Andersen I went to the village on the rest day where I knew Armstrong was staying and I basically sat on a wall in the village green and waited for him and his teammates to come back from training. All I did was sit there and by my presence say to him, “you know Lance, I haven’t given up and I’m not going away.” And if my presence on this public wall in this public village irritates you, then well, good. I always wanted him to know that I wasn’t giving up.
[CT] What do you think will come out of this from the complicit media with regards to cycling journalism?
[DW] I think other journalists will be just a little more skeptical when stuff happens now. They won’t be as accepting of superficial assurances from bike riders, or superficial assurances from sponsors or team organisers, race organisers, or UCI officials.
[CT] Do you see this happening now?
I think it will happen, yes I do. I think a lot of journalists would have been embarrassed by their performance in the Armstrong case. Maybe since then there has been a more vigilant media. I would have liked to see the UK media ask more questions of Team Sky this year, I have to say. When that story emerged of Geert Leinders, the Dutch Doctor, working with Team Sky I would have liked to have seen a more vigorous pursuit of whey they employed that guy, and how did they not pick up on his doping past. And they when they learned of his doping past, why did it take so much time to act on it. Questions like that are basically what journalists should be doing in my view. Don’t tip toe around the doping issue, because it it’s a central issue, then you need to be there right at the heart of it.
[CT] Is there anything you would have done differently, in hindsight, while pursuing Lance for the past 13 years?
[DW] Small things as I remember. I wrote a story before the 2001 Tour de France in the Sunday Times that was called “Saddled With Suspicion”. It was a lousy story, it was put together really badly. I actually wrote the story in Australia because I was covering the Lions Rugby Tour and it was a really bad story. A story that had great information but presented in a way that was, I wouldn’t say incoherent, but it lost a lot of impact by just being badly told.
I remember in 2004 I went and did a radio interview. I said at the time that Betsy Andreu was one of my sources and if ever there was a court case she would come and testify on my behalf. At the time Betsy wasn’t ready to go that public and I went away and betrayed her. She accepted that and she was good about it, so was her husband Frankie. They didn’t blame me too much, but it was a big mistake.
If I could go back I would be much more attentive to Emma O’Reilly in 2004 when all the revelations came out in LA Confidential. I was warned by the publishers that Emma was going to come under a lot of pressure. I thought, yeah, she’ll be able to handle it. Well she was psychologically in a bad way, and I didn’t give her enough support. We were always in touch and it wasn’t like I turned my back on her, I just didn’t foresee how bad it was going to get and how affected she was going to become. I should have been calling her every day and been there for her more than I was. I made plenty of mistakes when I look back on it.
[CT] Is there anything you can speak of now that you wanted to write but the Sunday Times or other publications didn’t allow you to because of legal consequences?
[DW] Well there were lots of things that were in LA confidential that I couldn’t write in Britain because of the liable laws. That was a real frustration.
I don’t know what the laws are like in Australia, but in American and in France, if you do your job as a journalist properly and you’re acting in good faith, you’re allowed to write quite a lot. And it seemed to be in Britain there was no allowance made for the fact that you were trying to do a good job, that you were trying to honor truth.
…full response in audio interview
British liable laws were very demorialising from a journalist’s point of view. But most of the stuff I wanted to get out there I got out there either in French or in America [LA Confidential and From Landis to Lance]. I couldn’t get From Landis to Lance published in Britain.
…full response in audio interview
One of the nicest things that anybody has ever said or written was by Charles Pelkey, a journalist I travelled with on the Tour who’s a very fine fellow and was skeptical about Armstrong from day 1. An American journalist, and there were plenty of journalists who were skeptical of Armstrong who expressed their skepticism in print, and Charles Pelkey was one of them. Now, Charles said that reading the USADA report he felt that he was reading LA Confidential all over again. The point is that was a tremendous compliment to LA Confidential. I think it was all there, the whole doping culture, the kind of person that Lance was, the fact that he was an advocate to doping. Many of the cyclists were dopes who knew this was the game, didn’t like doing it , didn’t want to do it, but felt they had to. I think Lance was the archetype of this, “doping is an opportunity” because such a central force in how you perform. If you do it, and you do it better than everybody else, you’re going to have some advantage. I think that’s how Lance thought and there was an element in LA Confidential that gave you that sense. In that regard, it was well ahead of its time. Even though it might be outdated now, it wasn’t outdated in 2004, I’ll tell you that.
[CT] Does Seven Deadly Sins represent closure for you on the Lance Armstrong era?
[DW] Yes it does..yes it does.
…full response in audio interview
I went to the Ryder Cup in Golf in October and I decided to go on Twitter. I went to Montana where Tyler Hamilton lives where I interviewed him. That was the week I went on Twitter. I started tweeting while I was there and I intended to tweet about golf and the sports that I cover. Then I got onto things, the Hamilton revelations, the USADA report, the UCI reaction, meant that I’ve been tweeting cycling related stuff. I’m the Chief Sports writer at the Sunday Times and I’m on my way to cover a big football game in Newcastle and I kind of want to get back to talking and thinking about other sports. I do love cycling and I’m hoping to go back to the Tour de France in 2013, while I’m also a guy who likes football, rugby, horse racing, golf, and I want to cover all those other sports as well, because that’s what I do for a living. I do the other sports as well as cycling. Cycling in a normal year might only involve the Tour de France for me. For the last 3 months it feels like I’ve been involved in the endgame of the Armstrong story, and I’d like it to be the endgame and I’d like it to be part of my past and not part of my present.
[CT] When was your last contact with Lance?
[DW] The last direct contact….the last one-on-one contact was the interview in 2001. When I went to see Armstrong in 2001 I was convinced he was a doper at that time. He suggested the interview because I didn’t believe he would want to talk to me. So we set up the interview three days later and I said to him, “Lance, basically I only want to talk to you about doping, because unless I believe you there’s no point in going any further. Unless I can believe you’re clean, there’s no point in talking.” People said that I had some balls to turn up and say I only want to discuss doping. I don’t ever consider that I’m a ballsy journalist in that way. But I think it’s the most logical thing in the world. How can I talk to him about his chances in the Tour de France if I don’t believe he was clean? It would have been completely illogical.
Going back on that story, you realise things you didn’t realise at the time. I said to him, “would you have heard the name Tommy Simpson and do you know the story of how he died?” Lance said, “well he never tested positive.” When you think about it, who was that coming from? Anyone who would have thought about Simpson would have said that he had amphetamines in his bloodstream, in his back pocket, in his suitcase, and they clearly played a part in pulling off that failsafe mechanism that stops you from going over the edge. But Lance’s big comment on his death was “he never tested positive.” And of course that was his mantra then, and was his mantra for the next 10 or 11 years on. “I passed all the tests, and you have no right to go any further.”
[CT] Lance is known for requesting interviews when he wants them. If Lance were to phone you right now, do you have a list of questions ready for him?
[DW] The first question I would ask him is “how hard is it to be in a situation that you need to tell the truth about something, but you feel you can’t.” I think that must be a desperate, desperate position to be in, and that’s the question I would ask. Because I don’t believe he can move on properly with his life.
I saw he had a recent tweet where he was criticising the American journalist a little bit offensively and said, “I know what I’ve done to help others”. Now I would like to ask him questions, and I don’t doubt that he’s helped others but I believe cancer has enriched Lance in a financial sense. I know that he’s done great work and I accept that he’s reached out to people affected by cancer and offered support to them, but it has been a key part of his earning power. And I would want to discuss that with him. Tell me about your Nike contract. How did that work? How closely connected to the sales of Livestrong product was the $7.5M minimum you were getting every year from Nike? How did you justify that to yourself? People were going into a sportswear store and looking at Nike gear with the Livestrong brand, and probably thought that this was a great cancer charity, and I’m sure Nike are paying a whack of money to the cancer charity and if I buy it I’m supporting a noble cause. But actually the people who were buying that were the people who ensured you were getting $7.5M per year.
I would want to know about going on charity rides and you getting a cut of what everyone paid to charity. I think there are plenty of question left for Lance. You would obviously go back and you’d want him to justify his decision to embrace doping after he had been through a pretty serious cancer. You’d want him to deal with the question of how he felt about all those people who believed he was an absolute icon, who saw him as one of the most inspirational human beings that they would have ever experienced in their lives. How did you feel Lance about the fact that when you were injecting youself, you were betraying all those people who had invested so much in you?
Lots of questions Wade, it would be a pretty interesting interview, wouldn’t it?