Wednesday 22 May 2019

Cycling: No vindication without pain in pursuit of the leviathan

Tommy Conlon

In David Walsh's new book there's a quote from the great American novel Moby Dick. He doesn't labour the metaphor but it's there for anyone to see. Captain Ahab pursued relentlessly the mysterious white whale. Walsh spent 13 years on the trail of Lance Armstrong.

Convinced of Armstrong's guilt since his first Tour de France victory in 1999, Walsh wouldn't let go of his quarry. At some point, wouldn't changed to couldn't. Persistently, unremittingly, he accumulated the evidence. But taking down Armstrong was harder than taking down Nixon. It wasn't until October 2012 that he finally fell, stripped of his seven Tours de France, his reputation as a sportsman destroyed.

Armstrong was a leviathan too, rich and powerful, ruthless and smart. He was David Walsh's Whale. In Seven Deadly Sins – My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, Walsh tells the story of the hunter and the hunted. Less than three weeks ago, he took the top prize at the British Journalism Awards: Journalist of the Year. He also was named sports journalist of the year. A native of Kilkenny, this engrossing book seals his reputation as the best sports journalist Ireland has ever produced.

Chasing Armstrong wasn't all he did during the last 13 years. He had his weekly workload with The Sunday Times and there were lengthy interludes when the story remained dormant. He is also the father of six children. But for long periods of that time, it came to dominate his life.

And for long periods of that time it must've felt to him that he was the hunted and Armstrong the hunter. Virtually the entire cycling industry was on Armstrong's side, from the riders to the corporate sponsors, the senior administrators, the media and millions of fans worldwide.

Walsh and a small cadre of dissenters with the guts to speak out clung to each other for support. Those honourable few included the former cyclists Greg LeMond, Christophe Bassons, Stephen Swart, Frankie Andreu and his redoubtable wife Betsy; the journalists Pierre Ballester and Walsh's great friend Paul Kimmage; the Dubliner Emma O'Reilly, who had been Armstrong's personal masseuse for two years. He pays rich tribute to them all. Many of them had been "attacked, belittled and even sued by Armstrong's formidable legal team."

Walsh outlines how their public stance took its toll on them. In some cases they were punished financially and professionally; in most cases it brought waves of emotional stress into their lives and their domestic relationships.

O'Reilly, in particular, suffered for her courage. Her reputation was smeared in public by Armstrong; she was also on the receiving end of several subpoenas from his lawyers. Walsh, one senses, felt some guilt for his role in her ordeal. It was O'Reilly's inside account of her time with Armstrong's team that became a core element of his 2004 book LA Confidentiel, written with Pierre Ballester. At the time of publication, Walsh lamented how little influence the book appeared to have. But eventually it would play a key role in the unravelling of Armstrong. Much of the material in LA Confidentiel resurfaced in the 2012 report by the United States Anti-Doping Agency which finally condemned him.

The book was a runaway success in France, selling 100,000 copies. But it almost cost Walsh his job. Armstrong had mobilised an expensive London legal firm to prevent its release in Britain. When his newspaper published some extracts, it was promptly sued; they settled with Armstrong at a cost of £600,000 after a two-year battle.

This is the kind of stress that no journalist can leave at the office. It follows him home. It followed Walsh home and into the lives of his wife and children. All the while, he was becoming increasingly isolated among his peers in the cycling media.

After the '99 Tour, Walsh's investigations took him to Rome, Florence, Copenhagen, San Francisco, Dallas, Austin, Utah, Colorado, Minneapolis, Michigan, Liverpool and New Zealand. It took him all over France. The interviews he conducted, the evidence he compiled, reinforced his conviction that Armstrong was perpetrating a fraud of breathtaking proportions.

But very few people wanted to know. Armstrong was getting away with it in broad daylight.

The positive test for a steroid on the '99 Tour. The dumped syringes in 2000. His association with the doping doctor Michel Ferrari. The mass of testimony in LA Confidentiel. Nothing was sticking.

"Lance was starting his campaign (in 2004) for a sixth Tour de France," writes Walsh. "I could see nothing that would stop him winning numbers seven, eight or nine. The road ahead seemed to stretch forever. And I was tired."

Armstrong retired after winning his seventh Tour in 2005. "I thought that the entire Lance Armstrong story was dead, that pursuing Lance was a period of my life which I would have to put down to experience."

He had good reason to surrender to the encroaching pessimism. It would be another seven years before Armstrong was finally exposed. Eventually the dam burst, broken by the tidal wave of evidence. In the end he was King Canute, trying to hold back the water.

In the final chapter Walsh conveys the thoughts of his vindicated circle of allies and friends. Most of them express sympathy for the fallen idol. Walsh doesn't dance on his grave either. He doesn't need to. His work is done. It is the achievement of a lifetime.

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