Chief sports writer for The Sunday Times, Irishman David Walsh is best known in cycling circles for being one of the people who have doggedly sought out the reality of Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France victories, not believing the “fairy tale” that defined the American’s recovery from cancer and record series of wins in the world’s toughest race.
The award-winning journalist is the author and co-author of a number of books on the shamed rider’s career and his subsequent fall from grace, the most recent being “Seven Deadly Sins” which Walsh describes as ‘more light-hearted than the others’!
Walsh has been giving talks around the country since cyclings’ governing body’s decision to ratify USADA’s recommendation that Armstrong be stripped of all seven of his Tour victories, and this he week appeared on stage at Edinburgh’s beautiful Lyceum Theatre in the heart of the city to tell a full house of nearly 700 Scottish cycling fans his story.
He’s a good story-teller and it was obvious that the last 14 years have taken their toll on the man, but talking about his involvement with Armstrong from first interviewing him as a young Tour debutant to becoming one of the US Postal Service team leader’s most despised critics, Walsh held the audience enthralled from start to finish and made time for some questions at the end.
We sat down for a chat with Walsh the following morning, before he enjoyed the fresh Edinburgh air with a run around Arthur’s Seat, the huge, beautiful park – complete with extinct volcano – in the city centre, and in part one of the interview we discuss Armstrong and his motivation for behaving the way he does, and what can be done about the lack of faith the cycling community has in the UCI leadership.
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The second part of Greg LeMond’s quote has turned out to be the accurate one; “…the greatest fraud in the history of sport”. But what now? The sport seems to have weathered the storm, Lance is not the same hot property he was, and cycling continues on…
“Ideally, the thing that most needs to happen now is that the leadership of the UCI needs to change. And I would say that if Pat McQuaid was sitting here saying ‘I’ve done nothing wrong, I’ve been anti-doping since I’ve been President and we’ve made great progress so why should I resign?’. I would say Pat, you’ve got to resign because you were there in a position of power, whether it was on the Management Committee, or incoming President, or the President when Lance came back and the UCI facilitated his comeback by bending its own rules, you were there through this horrific period and as long as you remain the sport is going to lack the credibility it deserves.
“If Pat McQuaid could see what cycling would look like without him, if he stepped away from it and Verbruggen stepped away from it, people would immediately say ‘OK, let’s see this new guy, let’s give him a chance’. A lot of people are not going to give these two guys a chance again because they feel so betrayed by the leadership of that era.
“Also, people have got to talk openly about anti-doping and say ‘yes, we understand how expensive the testing is, but we can’t have the sport without rigorous testing – the feeling will always be that when budgets need to be tightened, anti-doping will be adversely affected – and has been, and that’s going to keep happening. The UCI are basically motivated to make a profit to be able to keep their staff in jobs, in the lifestyle they’re accustomed to. I’m sure when the UCI officials – sports administrators in general, not just in cycling – fly they don’t fly economy, and business class 1st class travel is hugely expensive; and that all has to be paid for but I’d rather that money went on anti-doping.
“Imagine if a leader of the UCI came in and said ‘I will never travel Business Class, and no member of our staff will because that’s money we could be spending on anti-doping, everybody would say ‘brilliant! Here’s people who think about the sport and love it like I do, who are prepared to make the sacrifices I would make if I was in a position of power.’
“It would be a symbolic statement for Pat McQuaid to make – I’ve done a number of talks now, and in these venues where I’ve said cycling cannot have credibility in terms of its governance until Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen leave, there’s been a spontaneous round of applause, so cycling fans (certainly in Britain and Ireland where I’ve spoken) are all adamant that there’s something wrong and it needs to move on.”
Isn’t it odd to have a President of a sports governing body (and this doesn’t just apply to cycling) who should really just be the mouthpiece or maybe the chair of the management committee and who seems to have an extraordinary amount of power within the organisation?
“Certainly it comes closer to a dictatorship than a democracy.
“You have the sense that Pat McQuaid has the right to act in an autonomous way – he should only be representative of the organisation’s or the committee’s views, not just of himself.”
One of the quotes I remember from your book ‘From Lance to Landis’ was Emma O’Reilly saying to Lance ‘you’re a paranoid freak’ (Lance had set a ‘trap’ in his hotel room in case an angry local tried to get to him), and it makes me wonder whether Armstrong’s behaviour and attitude was a choice, or was he programmed that way?
“I asked a forensic psychiatrist ‘what’s the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath?’ and he said ‘there is none. People think sociopath is a milder form of the condition, but in technical terms there is no difference’.
“There’s a psychopathic scale of measurement in this field that goes from something like five to 32, with 32 being ‘serial killer’ and five being the most benign; honest decent people who would feel compassion for everybody, where a serial killer feels compassion for no one We all sit somewhere on that scale.
“People say to me ‘if you were ever to interview Lance and had just one question to ask him, what would it be?’, and whilst there isn’t really one specific question there is one area that I’d like to explore, I’d want to discover why he is the way he is – nature and nurture.
“Was he just born with a natural predisposition to want to succeed at all costs or was this something that was brought on through a difficult childhood? Abandoned by his biological dad would definitely make a difference to someone, make them harder; I’d ask him ‘what was it that made you put your hand on a bible in the SCA tribunal and speaking under oath about Emma O’Reilly say the things you did… what is in you that makes your behaviour different from people we would call normal?’ Because normal people don’t behave like he does…
“Oprah asked this question and his answer was to say that ‘when I am attacked my response is to attack back’.
“Okay, we know what you did Lance – I want to know why you did it.”
Most people would, for example, realise the importance of putting their hand on a bible and swearing a testimony in front of lawyers and a video camera. It’s pretty obvious to anyone that his body language in the SCA video testimonies indicates he’s lying.
“Yes, all the signs are there.
“Apparently a psychiatrist has looked at the video of the Opera Winfrey interview and he says that the tell-tale signs of being a psychopath are all there.
“It was really difficult for Lance in that Oprah interview and I felt a certain amount of sympathy for him, on the basis that he knew that he had to look and seem remorseful but in the end he couldn’t carry it off, emotionally or intellectually.
“He couldn’t see the significance of talking about the period the sponsors left him and he had his ‘$75 million’ day, expecting people to feel sorry for him, but we were actually all looking at him thinking ‘but that money wasn’t rightfully yours in the first place’ but he can’t see it like that, he thought it was his money and now somehow it was being unjustly taken away from him.
“Imagine if he had said ‘I lost all that money and I actually felt good about it because I’d always felt that I got it under false pretenses’…”
That sounds like the kind of thing that Tyler Hamilton might have said…
“Yes! ‘I’m glad it’s gone and now I can start again, from a better place’.
“Lance is only sorry he got caught, not for what he did.
“Lance thought that his life was like a set of weighing scales; on one side he was putting the bad and on the other the good, and he thought there was a balance there. He was addressing the bad by his work in the cancer community, but life doesn’t work like that; Al Capone was a great cancer donator in Chicago but he still went out and murdered people. Doing some good doesn’t necessarily mitigate all the bad.
“He says he was ‘caught in a trap’, he was created into an iconic figure and he ended up having to act the role… well, actually, he did a lot too to build that image.”
I imagine Lance and his entourage realised the power of the fairy tale early on and did what they could to maximise the earnings from it?
“Well there is the quote that I used in “Lance to Landis” that Bill Stapleton gave to journalist Mike Hall way back in 2001, where Stapleton talked about this ‘brash Texan’, from a single parent family, who wins the Tour de France… it’s a big deal, but not that much of a story.
“‘But then’ he said, ‘you layer on “Cancer Survivor” and that creates a different brand – much bigger’. In terms of the creation of the icon, the cancer aspect was the key factor; winning the Tour was big, but winning the Tour as ‘the guy who beat cancer’ lifted it to another level.
“Lance said himself that he ‘beat cancer’, which I always though was wrong – you survive cancer, you don’t beat it. Did that mean that Lance felt that other people ‘lost’ to it?
“Lance was unique in so many ways… cycling was at a crossroads in 1999 [following the Festina scandal at the Tour de France a year earlier] and we all believed that things were surely going to head off in a better direction. The French started their longitudinal testing system then, monitoring people regularly, and Jonathan Vaughters wrote that when he went to Crédit Agricole he was staggered by how little medications they used (not just relative to USPS but by any comparison), they didn’t even use much in the way of legal products.
“USPS used to travel with a virtual pharmacy! I heard talk about the riders ‘filling their bags’; they had a white bag for legal products and a black bag for doping products. Two bags, but they needed both.
“When Jonathan went to Crédit Agricole he found that the team had transitioned to a much less ‘medial supplements culture’ – and that’s the way the sport could have gone, but Lance was hugely influential in ensuring the sport didn’t go that way because if he won the Tour de France by doping, well then he set the bar at that level meaning that the others would have to dope too, in order to reach it.”
Do you think Armstrong realised after the Festina scandal in ’98 that the French (if not other nations or teams) had backed off from the organised and institutionalised doping regimens, and thought that if USPS ramped things up a gear they could distance a good proportion of the Tour peloton before the race even began?
“Absolutely. He would have known exactly what the French were doing, and he also likely realised that the Spanish were not going to change and some of the Italians weren’t going to change, the Dutch may or may not change (and we know now many didn’t)…
“What was really offensive about that era was that the French were complaining that the sport still had a problem, was operating ‘a deux vitesse’, and very few people said ‘you know what, they might have a point here, they might indeed be clean and the rest doping’. The French haven’t produced a winner of the Tour de France since Hinault in 1985, twenty-eight years ago.
“That’s completely illogical, and simply would not be the case unless doping had had such a profound effect on the sport. France was the number one country in the world for cycling in terms of its roads, its mountains and its climate, its love of the sport, the amount of racing that goes on in the place – the bottom of the pyramid is really wide, the French authorities are much more serious than those in other countries, the French teams got the message and bought into the idea of a cleaner sport, they were the first country to make doping a criminal offense… so it’s reasonable to believe that France would have produced a big star in the sport every so often, but if that person is clean he’s at such a disadvantage that’s he’s never going to become the great champion he should.
“People need to face up to that bloody reality; they might laugh at the French and say they’re lazy or whatever, but that’s unintelligent nonsense and I saw some really serious journalists making that argument and I just thought it was disgraceful.”
What could – or should – Lance do now to try to help the sport he says he loves?
“I think there’s one main thing that he could do: go to WADA, be the first guy through the door at a Truth & Reconciliation Hearing (or whatever the mechanism turns out to be). Say ‘I want to do a full interview and I want to tell you everything’.
“Actually though, I don’t think he can do that now.
“People think he wants to hold onto as much of his fortune as he can, but that’s not the biggest challenge facing him.
“What he’s contending with now is keeping himself out of prison, because when you perjure yourself as much as he did, when you go into witness intimidation as he did – and in multiple countries, you don’t know where something’s going to come back and bite you.”
It’s strange that with all this hanging over him Lance is still trying to enter swimming competitions and appears to be able to brush it off, he seems to operate almost unaffected.
“Yes, he needs to compete.
“I don’t think he really has a feeling that he has hurt or wronged anyone, he has the sense that he is the victim.”
Paul Kimmage has a better relationship with Floyd Landis these days after sitting down with him, hearing and working through his story directly. Do you think there will ever be a time when you and Armstrong turn the corner in your relationship?
“Because I’m not sure he has the capacity to really see what he did in the way that I believe he has to see it.
“He has to understand that he behaved in the most disgraceful way. Even if he has done a lot of good things, it doesn’t mitigate that. That’s where Oprah was brilliant in her interview; she didn’t allow him to explore that.”