Chipping away at Lance Armstrong's bulletproof veneer

Sat, Jan 26, 2013, 00:00

CYCLING:David Walsh spent years doggedly searching for the truth behind the cyclist’s heroic image, and his story is a fascinating read

Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, by David Walsh, Simon & Schuster, 426pp, £14.99

For many years he was polished and in control before the cameras, delivering his message with a practised charisma. Things were markedly different during Lance Armstrong’s confessional with Oprah Winfrey last week. The Texan had chosen the talk-show host as the conduit for the message he had to tell the American people: okay, despite what I said before, I doped . . . but I had to do it, I was on a mission to bring hope, and the sport gave me no choice.

Armstrong had enjoyed a warm reception during his previous appearances on her programme, and, maybe thinking back to a somewhat soft interview with the runner Marion Jones after she was exposed for doping, the Texan believed that he would be in the driving seat.

Winfrey had other ideas. Stung perhaps by his previous insistence that he was clean and also by the scepticism on Twitter and other forums that she was the right person for the job, she and her researchers worked hard to prepare for the programme. It wasn’t quite 60 Minutes, but she posed enough solid questions to leave Armstrong shaken.

Admitting doping, and lying, at the very outset of the broadcast, he sought to spin the message as best he could. However, Armstrong really dropped the ball when it came to the subject of Betsy Andreu. The wife of his former team-mate Frankie Andreu, she had been one of his most outspoken critics for many years and testified under oath that she had heard him admit doping to the doctors treating his cancer back in 1996.

Choosing not to confirm that she had been right about the hospital-room confession all along, Armstrong sought instead to play down years of insults aimed in her direction. “I did call her crazy,” he admitted to Winfrey. “I think she’d be okay with me saying this . . . I told her: ‘I called you crazy, I called you a bitch, I called you all these things . . . but I never called you fat.’”

Delivered with a slight smile, this may have been an attempt by Armstrong to lighten the moment, but Winfrey was not impressed by his flippancy, nor by his admission of bullying. She pushed him for the remainder of the interview, and when the full two and a half hours had been shown, Armstrong’s reputation was in ruins.

Unsurprisingly, polling after the show revealed a very negative reaction: only 21 per cent of people questioned believed it was possible for him to restore his reputation, while a mere 17 per cent saw him as being completely honest in his answers to Winfrey.

For the journalist David Walsh and others who had been on Armstrong’s bad side for years, the long overdue revelation of his true character came as no surprise. The cyclist had been seen as a near saint by many, partly because of his charitable work with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, more recently known as Livestrong, and also because of the compelling story of his return from advanced testicular cancer to win the Tour de France seven times.

But, as Walsh concluded back in 1999, when Armstrong first brought the yellow jersey to Paris, the Hollywoodesque story wasn’t quite what it seemed, and the man marketed as cycling’s clean new hero was using the same banned medicines as many of the Tour de France winners before him.

From fan to sceptic

Seven Deadly Sins catalogues Walsh’s work in the years since then, documenting his efforts to prove that Armstrong’s claims of racing on water alone were empty. It’s a book about Armstrong but also about Walsh’s own progression from fan of the sport to one of its biggest sceptics.

Early on, he writes of his early days following the careers of Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche, his reluctance to consider that they and other stars of the 1980s might be using banned substances, and his decision to write about sporting heroes rather than fallible men.

That position gradually changed over the years, as this book shows. It refers to the Late Late Show on which Walsh spoke about the Italian investigation into riders using the performance-enhancing drug EPO and the judge’s conclusion that Roche had been involved. Walsh came under attack that night, as he did years later over the Michelle Smith case, but he continued to push hard on the subject of doping and developed an intuition for when things weren’t quite right.

Armstrong’s return from cancer and his 1999 Tour de France success set off alarm bells, not least because the rider was stronger than he’d ever been before the disease. Most other journalists ran with the heroic-comeback angle, but Walsh, Paul Kimmage and several others went against the tide and wrote of their scepticism.

“This is about as logical as the Tour being led by a lobster on a bike,” Walsh writes in the book, referring to his thoughts at the time. “A lobster complete with a helmet and a moving backstory about a last minute escape from a pot of boiling water.”

Seven Deadly Sins takes the reader through the efforts of Walsh and others to show the truth of the Armstrong myth, to convince people that rather than being a cool, clean American hero winning through talent and dedication alone, Armstrong was cynically using his image as a cancer fighter to sidestep questions about his sophisticated doping.

Walsh writes about his discovery that Armstrong was using the services of the banned doctor Michele Ferrari, about the efforts by Armstrong’s agent Bill Stapleton to get Walsh onside with promises of greater access to the rider, about the legal action he and the Sunday Times faced over the publication of the book LA Confidentiel: Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong. He also writes about the backdated prescription that helped Armstrong sidestep a positive doping test in 1999, plus the witnesses – such as the Andreus, the Irishwoman Emma O’Reilly and the triple Tour de France winner Greg LeMond – who testified under oath about Armstrong during a 2006 court case.

Floyd Landis too played a crucial part, and Walsh takes the reader through Landis’s positive test at the 2006 Tour de France, the loss of that title and his eventual decision to give evidence against Armstrong and other former team-mates on the US Postal Service team.

That testimony was arguably the most crucial of all. Landis’s decision to speak out was the catalyst for federal agents to get other former Armstrong team-mates under oath, and, over time, a solid case was built. The US Anti-Doping Agency (Usada)took over when the attorney general inexplicably dropped the federal case, and last August Armstrong was banned for life.

Seven Deadly Sins documents each of the steps along the way, noting each of the thousand tiny cuts that chipped away at Armstrong’s pedestal and his bulletproof veneer. By and large it’s very well written, although the push to get it out soon after cycling’s international governing body, UCI, validated Usada’s lifetime ban makes the final 50 pages feel somewhat rushed. Still, as an insight into what it was like to be on the bad side of the Texan cyclist, both Walsh’ s book and Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race make for fascinating reading.

As Betsy Andreu, Walsh, Hamilton, Landis and many others learned, Armstrong may not have called them fat, but, before his downfall, he certainly could make their lives very difficult indeed.

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