Thursday, April 18, 2024

The VeloVeritas Years – 2013: The David Walsh Interviews

"My feeling is that too many continental Europeans who have doped almost have a vested interest in the sport going back to how it was before, in order to legitimise their own careers. It’s not a coincidence that it was Eddy Merckx who introduced Lance Armstrong to Michele Ferrari."

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HomeOtherThe VeloVeritas YearsThe VeloVeritas Years - 2013: The David Walsh Interviews

It’s hard to believe it’s nearly five years since we sat down for a coffee with hime and conducted the David Walsh Interviews, chatted about Lance Armstrong, his dogged pursuit of the American’s own doping and team-enablement system, and the recently-published USADA “Reasoned Decision” to ban Armstrong for life and strip all seven Tour de France wins from his palmarès.

Many believed that the seismic revelations of organised team-doping; the routine,  complicated scheduling and arrangement of fresh blood bags for major races, the inculcation of doping techniques to teammates (and potential teammates as well as neo-pros and youngsters) would blow the lid off the sport’s problem with Omertá once and for all and change its course for the future.

However – as is life – these things are complicated, nuanced, far from black and white, and change comes slowly… One example; “What to do about all those ex-dopers in the commentary box and managing teams and employing dozens of people, bringing in lots of sponsorship money to bike racing?

David had been in Edinburgh to give a talk in the city’s Lyceum Theatre to hundreds of cycling fans as part of his speaking tour on the subject, and we took the opportunity to spend a few hours with him at his hotel the following morning.

The David Walsh Interviews are our pick for the year 2013 in our “The VeloVeritas Years” series – they represent one of the – if not the – most significant and turbulent times in our sport.

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This article first ran on 23rd April, 2013

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’!

David 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.

David Walsh
David Walsh feels no joy at the final outcome of the Lance Armstrong story, but he is interested in what drove the man to behave the way he did. Photo©Martin Williamson

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David Walsh, On Lance

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.”

David Walsh
Emma O’Reilly was Armstrong’s soigneur for a while, and despite trying to steer clear of their ‘medical programme’ became involved on a number of occasions.

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.

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