“The greatest heist sport has ever seen”

SEVEN DEADLY SINS: MY PURSUIT OF LANCE ARMSTRONG BY DAVID WALSH

“The greatest heist sport has ever seen”lancearmstrong3

That was how the US anti-doping agency put it on October 22nd 2012 when Lance Armstrong was finally banished from the cycling world. The Texan rider had been a global icon, the hero who fought back from cancer to win the Tour de France seven times. His autobiography “It’s not about the bike: my journey back to life” had made him millions. But in the autumn of last year he was stripped of those titles and banned for a lifetime from competitive sport after his years of using performance enhancing drugs was finally uncovered.

Confession

The guy who had been professional cycling’s face of anti-doping, had himself been doping in a big time, systematic, sophisticated way. But now his number was up. He didn’t appeal the USADA’s lifetime ban and in January 2013 he even went on US talk show Oprah to admit to everything. The EPO, the blood transfusions, the needles, the lies, the cover ups, the fellow riders he had dragged in to his world of illicit drugs, the bullying of those that spoke out against his using. Lance had a lot of explaining and apologising to do.

One man in particular deserved that apology more than most. That is the Sunday Times sports writer and pursuer of Lance Armstrong – the author of this book, David Walsh. For years Lance had labelled the Irish journalist a “troll” for relentlessly pursuing him and digging hard to find the truth about the cyclist’s unbelievable performances on the road.

A good, clean race

He had shown no signs of victory in the previous years that he competed but now Lance had come from nowhere to win his first Tour in 1999. The rider was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996 but 3 years later he was declared free of the disease, had resumed hard training and was ready for his heroic comeback. Organisers of the Tour had declared 1999’s race as the clean and credible Tour – “The Tour of Renewal.” This was in response to “unimaginable quantities of banned drugs” on the 1998 Tour with the Festina team leading the way. They predicted that 99’s race would be slower now that it was free of doping athletes, but Lance in fact rode it faster than his predecessors.

Suspicion

Seasoned Tour journalist David Walsh smelled a rat but unfortunately he was alone in thinking that something wasn’t quite right about Lance’s victory. Something didn’t add up.

Sadly, the majority of the press were too gullible and sentimental about the Tour to want to question anything. They saw it as the greatest sports story ever told – cancer victim returns to take the yellow jersey. Journalists wanted to believe it was real, that the cancer kid fought back. Walsh found it maddening that his contemporaries would not investigate but found the courage to plough on with his own investigation regardless. Walsh’s quest for truth was admirable and brave. He was shunned by other journalists, readers attacked him in angry letters and he had to tread carefully with his newspaper. Still he pressed on. His search took him around the world, gathering mounting evidence that Lance Armstrong was lying. “The Flawed Fairytale” was one of his Sunday Times headlines.

Investigation

Walsh’s investigation covered many years and miles. There was no hacking into computer files, breaking into buildings or seedy meetings with sources – just simple journalism, asking the right people, the right questions. He began to delve into the history of performance enhancing drugs in his beloved sport. It is difficult to believe that Eddy Merckx tested positive back in his day but everyone continues to accept him as the greatest cyclist ever.

It was hard to read about cycling heroes that my family and I had held in great esteem during my childhood and teenage years. Sean Kelly, Stephen Roache and especially Claudio Chiappucci were all doping when their posters, torn from Cycling Weekly, were on my wall. Italian climber Chiappucci was my particular favourite and I even ran across Southsea Common to meet him at the finish line when the Tour came to town in 1994. So it was pretty devastating to read that his legendary and formidable climb at Sestriere, when he held off Tour Champion Miguel Indurain in 1992, is now largely deemed as the first great EPO ride.

As Walsh dug deeper into the lies, Lance’s people pressurised and threatened him and all the while Lance denied that he had any involvement with banned substances. The arrogant Texan responded to doping questions after his cancer comeback: “Do you really think I would put that stuff in my body after what I’ve been through?” Well yes, it turns out you did, and rather a lot of it!

Bully

I saw David Walsh talk about his pursuit of Lance Armstrong at the University of Portsmouth earlier this year. What struck me then and still does after reading this is that this isn’t just a story of how a man cheats to win a bike race. This is a seriously disturbed individual who seemingly didn’t blink at ruining the careers, relationships, friendships and reputations of others in pursuit of enabling himself and his inner circle to win at all costs. Like the bullying of other riders such as Christophe Bassons of which Walsh says “it revealed a nasty, almost sociopathic side to his (Lance’s) nature.” Then there were the journalists who lost their jobs for trying to reveal the truth, the legal action taken against papers and individuals and the team masseuse pressurised to carry drugs over borders, dispose of needles and cover up his needle marks with her concealer make up. But the couple who really paid the price for speaking out against Lance Armstrong were his former teammate Frankie Andreu and Frankie’s wife Betsy. They were with Lance at a hospital during his treatment for cancer and heard him talking to his doctor, calmly listing the performance enhancing drugs he had taken during his career. Betsy was horrified and couldn’t let it go. Shortly after, she became Walsh’s most diligent and reliable ally in getting the truth about this bogus champion out there. She came across as a real gutsy and heroic woman, the real hero of the Lance Armstrong story. When the truth finally came out, Frankie summed up the effect Lance’s bullying had had on his career and their personal lives.

“I was tired of defending myself, tired of Lance Armstrong. I was ready to get his name out of my household. I was at a complete loss at how to balance pushing for the truth yet trying to maintain my place in cycling.”

Believe

When Lance retired from cycling for the second time he said “you should believe in these athletes, and you should believe in these people…and there are no secrets – this is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it.”

After reading this fantastic book full of the best of sports and investigative journalism, it really is hard to believe that the sport can be completely clean and that blood, sweat and tears is all it takes.

Notes on the author – David Walsh

  • Chief Sports Writer for the Sunday Times
  • His first book on Lance Armstrong “L.A Confidentiel”  was co-authored with Pierre Ballester in 2003 but only published in France for legal reasons
  • On Oprah’s interview with Lance: “the interview was fine in as far as it went, but it did not go nearly far enough, and even in as far as it went I was particularly disappointed that he didn’t admit what might be called the hospital room admission from 1996.”

SOUTHSEA BOOKWORM RATING: 9/10

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