Johannesburg – On the Sunday after the Springboks had won the Rugby World Cup, David Walsh, who will forever be known the man who brought down Lance Armstrong, was on his way home to Ireland from South Africa. In Ireland, his son, John, had died in a bicycle accident, taken too soon at the age of 12.
Walsh tells a story about John that guides and defines his career as a journalist.
“It may sound a bit soppy, but this has a deep resonance with journalism and ethics and the truth,” said Walsh, who was in Johannesburg on Thursday as the keynote speaker at the Sports Industry Summit.
“John was seven going on eight, and his teacher was reading the story of the Nativity to the class. The three wise men travel to visit Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus with their gold, frankincense and myrrh. She finished the story.
“John puts up his hand. She had told them Joseph had left Bethlehem as a poor carpenter with no worldly wealth. John asked why he was poor and wanted to know what did with the gold the three wise men had left them. The teacher told him: ‘I’ve been reading the story for 33 years and no one has ever asked me that, and the truth is, I don’t know’. She told me she thought it was the most remarkable story.”
John shared his father’s need to question, and throughout his career Walsh has asked the unpopular and, yet, obvious, question. He and a few colleagues watched the previously unheralded Irish swimmer, Michelle Smith, win medals at the 1996 Olympics and smelt a rat. They asked other swimming coaches, who told them, off the record, they suspected that she was doping. The improvement was too vast to be anything but chemically enhanced. Plus, she was dating – and later married – a Dutch discus thrower who was serving a four-year ban for doping. Walsh and the two others were treated as traitors by an Ireland revelling in a feel-good story. They were proved right when she was banned for tampering with a urine sample.
Walsh first met the young Lance Armstrong at his first Tour de France in 1993. He liked this man who “knew his own mind”, and told others he believed he would go on to be a cycling great. Could he win the Tour, Walsh was asked by Paul Kimmage (the former professional cyclist who confessed to doping and later became a journalist). Never, said Walsh. He can’t climb nor time trial.
He has the wrong body shape. In 1999, when Armstrong won the Tour de France, Walsh wrote that he saw no reason to celebrate. A fraud, the greatest fraud of all, was being perpetuated. His book, Seven Deadly Sins, my pursuit of Lance Armstrong, details his 13 years of investigation, castigation and, finally, vindication.
“It wasn’t something I wanted to gloat about,” said Walsh. “On the day he was kicked out of cycling and declared by the UCI to be a disgrace, it was quite anticlimactic because the people who were calling him a disgrace where the people who were covering up for him.
“It was vindication for those people who had put their necks on the line to tell me the story – Betsy Andreu (wife of Frankie, a former teammate of Armstrong’s who heard him admit to taking drugs), Emma O’Reilly (a former US Postal employee who had disposed of needles for Armstrong) and others.
“I was just a journalist doing my job. Anyone who had spent 10 minutes with Lance Armstrong, if they had looked at him seriously would have been able to see that he was obviously a cheat. When I wrote the book and went over the stuff from 1999, I think, ‘How did anybody believe this guy?’ But, they did. A lot of journalists need to look in the mirror because they were reflecting the mood instead of asking questions.”
Walsh asked the questions and spent almost three months with Team Sky and Chris Froome. What was it that made Walsh believe Froome’s Tour de France victory was clean?
“Lots of things. The team he is in and the culture of the team. I spent about 10 weeks inside Team Sky and saw zero doping culture.
“I think Chris Froome is a bit of a freak. I hope that he is clean, but the fact that I believe it doesn’t mean he is.
“I’d be very surprised if he turned out to not be clean.”
Walsh first came to South Africa to cover the Cavaliers rebel rugby tour in 1986, writing about the politics of apartheid in its last few years. He came for the 1995 Rugby World Cup, to what he called the “greatest Rugby World Cup of them all. There will never be a greater or more significant World Cup than that”.
A year and three days ago, on October 22, Walsh was driving down the M25 in London shortly before Pat McQuaid, the president of the International Cycling Union, was going to give the UCI’s verdict on Lance Armstrong. He stopped and drove into a service station along the road, and opened up his laptop to watch the live streaming of the press conference.
“I remember McQuaid saying Lance Armstrong should be forgotten in cycling,” said Walsh. “The guy telling us Lance should be forgotten was part of the greatest cover-up in cycling. You hypocrite. I had no sense of joy, no sense of vindication. I had done my job.”
His son, John, would have been 30 years old on October 22.
“His death has always been with me. We would think what he would have been like had he lived. I called Betsy Andreu after McQuaid had spoken and she also felt it was anti-climactic. I told her it would have been John’s 30th birthday. She said this was his little gift to you. I told her I was not sure that’s true, but I’d like to believe that it is.”