Not a fan with a typewriter: David Walsh
It was billed as the greatest conspiracy in professional sports and led to the fall from grace of cycling's greatest hero. Sean Moriarty met the Irish journalist who pushed him off his pedestal.
It was on the ninth stage of the 1999 Tour de France that American Lance Armstrong won his first of his seven tour titles. The stage finished at the ski resort of Sestrier after the peloton had traversed five other Alpine passes.
As the race approached the summit finish two lone riders, the Spaniard Fernando Eascartin and the Italian Ivan Goti were clear of a small chasing group that included Armstrong who was on his first tour since recovering from brain and testicular cancer. Out of nowhere the lanky Texan launched an attack on the lead pair. He left his own pack for dead and reeled in the two stage leaders with consummate ease. He won the stage at a canter and now had one arm inside the sleeve of the leader’s yellow jersey (maillot jaune) he would wear in Paris just over a week later. It was his first of seven wins. A new hero had arrived to conquer the world’s toughest sporting event, an event reeling from a doping scandal the previous year. Who better to project the image of a changing-for-the-better sport than a cancer survivor and an All American hero?
The world’s media, or at least a large portion of it, went wild. They feted Armstrong and hailed the dawn of a new drug- free Tour de France. It was almost too good to be true. It was.
Among the doubters was Kilkenny-born Sunday Times journalist David Walsh. Armstrong’s performance that day sparked a 13-year campaign by Walsh and a few more non-believers who refused to accept that such a performance from a man who less than three years earlier had been diagnosed with a killer disease could not have been drug-enhanced. The fact that he won the ’99 Tour at a faster average speed than the previous drug-fuelled competition rang further alarm bells with Walsh and a handful of journalists who refused to be labelled “fans with typewriters”. The fact that the tainted ‘98 Tour, which saw team bosses arrested and drugs seized, started in Dublin added to the Irish interest. Irish customs officers could have made names for themselves when they met Armstrong and his US Postal team, and others, off the ferry but they, understandably, chose to extend a Cead Mile Failte instead.
By 2003 Walsh was in hot pursuit of Armstrong who kept eluding his charges
Walsh and his colleagues went out on a limb – a very weak one – but kept reaching out to every branch and twig until they were proven right. In October this year Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and was banned from competition for life.
“Everything Armstrong did in that race was the profile of a cheat, every question he answered, the way he treated Christophe Bassons [who was writing a daily column in Le Parisien where he spoke out about doping]. That young French rider was anti-doping but he was bullied out of the Tour de France that year and his biggest bully was Lance,” says Walsh, recently voted British Sports Writer of the Year for a fourth time.
Walsh and his colleagues immediately became the villains. How dare they call out a cancer survivor who had become an inspiration to millions across the globe, a man who had just given one of the deadliest illnesses in the world a two-fingered salute by winning the most arduous sporting challenge of them all.
Walsh’s concern could be traced back long before that fateful day on Sestrier. He is a lifelong cycling enthusiast and had been covering the Tour since 1982 when he started to report on the progress of then rising Irish star Sean Kelly and later Stephen Roche. Two years later he and his wife Mary moved to Paris to follow his dream and make his living writing about cycling. There he became friendly with the third Irishman in the peloton, a young Dubliner called Paul Kimmage and the pair formed a loyal friendship that is still sound today.
But Kimmage never scaled the same heights as his countrymen. As Kelly and Roche became national icons the Dubliner’s career went backwards.
Why? Because he was appalled at what he saw. Doping and other illegal performance enhancing practices were rife. He wanted out and followed his friend into cycling journalism. In May 1990 he wrote, Rough Ride, an insider’s look at professional cycling in which he was heavily critical of cycling’s drugs culture. He, like Bassons, many years after him, became a pariah in the cycling world but it made him and Walsh determined to clean up the sport they loved. They even suffered the wrath of their own local heroes, Roche and Kelly, going so far as claiming to have “heard” pills rattle in the latter’s pocket. Years later Roche and Walsh were to have a famous showdown on RTE’s Late Late Show.
Time moved on. Roche and Kelly retired from international competition while Walsh and Kimmage continued their sports writing careers.
By the late 1990s they had both gained reputations as fearless reporters intent on cleaning up sport in general but especially cycling. They targeted Irish triple Olympic medal winning swimmer Michelle Smith – Ireland’s most successful Olympian – as a cheat years before she was banned by her sport’s governing body for “tampering” with a urine sample. Walsh’s report from Atlanta 1996 for the Irish edition of the Sunday Times hurt a nation not used to celebrating Olympic success. Kimmage, meanwhile, got caught up in a law suit by the UCI, cycling’s world governing body whose senior officials, one of whom was Dubliner Pat McQuaid, accused him of libel and defamation. The journalists did not flinch.
“Imagine if somebody murdered your daughter or committed a terrible wrong to somebody close to you. And the cops said we can’t get him now but we will stay on the case, and then eight years later the cops came to you and said, we now have the evidence and we are now going to get the guy, wouldn’t you say brilliant, “ says Walsh.
He was, of course, referring, to his pursuit of Armstrong.
Something was not right. He was sure. Slowly but surely he unravelled some of the complexities of the enigma that is Armstrong. He had a very able manager/lawer in Bill Stapleton who painted a picture of perfect innocence in front of the journalist whom he labelled a “f***ing troll”.
But for all of Armstrong’s analytic and strategic intelligence, with which he pre-empted Walsh’s allegations by leaking stories, often the day before the Irish man’s story would be published, to make it look like a witch hunt or at the very least make Walsh’s story look weaker, his emotional intelligence was not so robust.
Betsy Andreu, the wife of Armstrong’s former teammate Frankie Andreu, was the first in a long line of women that the American failed to keep ‘on message’. She witnessed a conversation with Armstrong’s doctor, just days after he had his cancer operations, that convinced her he was a drug cheat. She threatened Frankie that their marriage was over if he ever took performance-enhancing drugs and later made contact with Walsh to tell her side of the story.
It wasn’t quite the “smoking gun” he was after but it was another vital piece of the jigsaw. Other women that Armstrong counted on, wrongly, to cover his back, like his male friends, included his first wife, Kristin, singer Sheryl Crowe whom he dated, and other ex-girlfriends.
Famously there was an Irish woman in the mix too: Tallaght ‘s Emma O’Reilly.
The qualified electrician and part-time sports massage therapist, was the head soigneur – responsible for feeding, clothing and escorting the cyclists – of the US Postal Team and one of Armstrong’s trusted lieutenants during his comeback season.
She saw and heard things that eventually changed everything. On several occasions she unwittingly and innocently acted as drug mule for the squad, collected and delivered testosterone and other performance enhancing drugs in Belgium, France and Spain. She even attended a team training session on the summit of Sestrier at which Dr Michele Ferrari was present. Ferrari was known as a facilitator who helped cyclists’ obtain illegal drugs. Armstrong denied for years that the was connected the Italian, he was not mentioned in Armstrong’s biography It is not about the Bike, and it was only when Walsh threatened to expose him as a liar that Armstrong went to a rival newspaper and announced that he and Ferrari were working on a speed record. He was off the hook again but when O’Reilly came forward it confirmed what Walsh already suspected.
“Emma O’Reilly did an exceptional job in 2003 when she gave me an interview in detail on her entire experience with the US Postal team. She did not need to do this. She had her business in Manchester. She is a very successful woman and had moved on in her life in every way. She did not need to revisit this but she did. It was vindication for Armstrong’s constant character assassination of her, bullying , threats, subpoenas arriving at the house every other day, it was a horrible time. Why did she do it? She did not think that cycling was right and she did not think she should sit idly by,” explains Walsh.
Walsh and others, not least US Federal agencies, continued their pursuit of Armstrong. He retired from the sport in 2005 but made a spectacular return in 2009 when he finished third overall on the Tour. Still the doubters were not convinced and they kept picking away. Walsh built a substantial book of evidence against the seven-time champion and eventually, in October of this year, the whole house of cards came crashing down in spectacular fashion.
Armstrong argues he has never tested positive and that he has passed every test thrown his way. He claimed he was the most tested athlete in the world. The USADA investigation concluded in August this year and before it could announce its findings Armstrong issued a statement saying:"There comes a point in every man's life when he has to say, 'Enough is enough’. For me, that time is now.” He was not going to get embroiled in further appeals. The UCI was not going to appeal either so, effectively, Lance Armstrong was consigned to the scrap heap.
In August of this year Armstrong retired: "There comes a point in every man's life when he has to say…"
But there is one more final play in the whole saga, one with a distinct Irish angle. The UCI’s president, Dubliner McQuaid said: “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling. He deserves to be forgotten.”
This statement enraged Walsh and others who felt the UCI was not doing enough to prevent doping. The UCI was also engaged in a massive legal row with Kimmage over the contents of Rough Ride. A court case was due to be heard last week in Switzerland but the UCI dropped all charges against Kimmage within days of Armstrong’s life ban.
“Too little, too late” cried Walsh who believes the Dubliner should not have been so easily duped by Armstrong and chose not to act on suspicions to avoid bringing the sport into disrepute. Walsh insists that as a direct consequence of Armstrong’s ban McQuaid should step down as leader of world cycling. He also has no fear that the UCI will be coming after him any time soon.
Walsh says: “I think Kimmage was the top target and that kind of back-fired on them. In a way that protects me and other guys further down the food chain. I don’t think the UCI will be going after anybody. It is a question of who will go after them now. But even if these guys [UCI] were behaving in an honest way they will still have to say they backed the wrong horse. They supported a guy who completely duped us, and for making that mistake we feel they should step aside and give an opportunity to other leaders to take the sport forward. They are now discredited and they really should be on their way.”
There are many, many more characters and twists in this fascinating story that involves cyclists, officials, doctors and journalists from all over the world but the epicentre of the quake that rocked cycling was very much Irish.
Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong (Simon &Schuster £18.99)