Lance Armstrong: the fallen idol of sport

As new film The Program charts the downfall of the Tour de France drugs cheat, crusading journalist David Walsh looks back at the story that made his name

Officially, Lance Armstrong the global icon died on 22 October 2012. He passed from the sporting world with nothing. Seven Tour de France titles taken from him, along with his reputation. Once he used to go for mountain-bike rides with the president of the United States, and get paid millions by sponsors. Now, he’s just another athlete who cheated.

Advertisement

Perhaps, which was a word he gave me in answer to a yes-or-no question, it might have been better for Lance to leave it at that. Just walk away from the limelight and never look back. But he couldn’t do that; not Lance.

Three months after cycling’s authorities ended his reign as a champion, Oprah Winfrey conducted the funeral rites at a nondescript hotel in Austin, Texas (see below). It was a sombre encounter. Oprah refused to shed a tear, and viewers around the world felt the same. For most people his fall was more bathos than pathos, more depressing letdown than human tragedy.

I’d known Armstrong for almost 20 years, and had been on his case for more than 13. From the moment of his first Tour de France victory in 1999, I was one of a number of journalists who didn’t believe in him. From the moment of his first victory in the Tour, there were plenty of reasons for believing he was cheating. As time passed the evidence mounted.

A positive drug test was covered up during that first Tour victory, and within two years witnesses had come forward. What was remarkable was the rising number of people who supported him, despite the case against him getting stronger. But this happens a lot in sport: success elevates the athlete and the higher he or she rises, the more difficult it becomes to sustain the case against them.

With Armstrong, success wasn’t his only or even his most powerful shield. He had come through testicular cancer so serious that his doctors spoke of him having just a 50-50 chance of survival. To survive that was one thing; to go on from there to win the Tour de France multiple times was quite another.

As Lance told it, he didn’t survive cancer – he beat it. He also got Sally Jenkins from The Washington Post to help him write an extraordinary account of the journey back to life, and the book became a worldwide bestseller. Such was the compelling nature of the storytelling, and the judicious decision not to tell everything, that Lance inspired people to believe they could overcome pretty much anything.

Armstrong during the 1999 Tour de France

If you could win the Tour de France after what he’d been through, what wasn’t possible? It was the kind of parade that no half-decent human being would want to rain on. That set a few of us some way below the half-decent line. But here’s the thing – occasionally there’s a choice: the beautiful lie or the ugly truth? Which do you want? The interesting part for me was that so many preferred the beautiful lie, knowing it to be a lie or, at the very least, just not wanting to know the truth.

Through the eyes of cycling’s authorities, the Union Cycliste Internationale, Lance Armstrong was the saviour, the feel-good story that boosted the popularity of their sport. Television ratings improved as Lance attracted a new audience, and sponsors were happy because here was an athlete who transcended cycling and would eventually transcend sport itself.

I remember the scepticism that lay like a lowlying fog in the press room during the opening week of that first Armstrong Tour de France. Everyone looked at this guy, who had ridden the race four times pre-cancer and never placed higher than 36th, who couldn’t compete in the high mountains and was minutes down in time trials. What was behind the transformation?

Many of them suspected Armstrong was using banned drugs, especially as the drug of choice in 1999, erythropoietin [EPO], was undetectable at that time. Their suspicions lasted until the race left the Pyrenees in the final week and Lance’s victory became certain.

David Walsh with Chris O’Dowd, who plays him in The Program

Then the hostility lessened, the mood changed. L’Equipe, the French sports daily, got behind the new champion and by the time Lance reached Paris, the applause had grown from guarded to thunderous. I remember filing a piece for The Sunday Times late on that Saturday afternoon, the day before the race ended, and feeling emotionally flat. What to say when you can’t say anything that reinforces the general euphoria, or can’t give any credit to a man who has come back from a near-death brush with cancer and won the Tour de France?

It’s something that a sports writer occasionally wrestles with. The officials, the sponsors, television and even the fans were willing us to love Lance. This was such a life-affirming story and it resonated way beyond sport’s boundaries. There was a pressure to forget the questions, the reasons to disbelieve, to just put your hands together and applaud.

That Saturday afternoon I wrote about there being times it was right to applaud the champion but also times when it’s better to keep your hands by your sides, and this was one such occasion. It wasn’t acclamation of a new champion we needed but an inquiry.

That advice wasn’t well received by readers of The Sunday Times. The complaints came in a stream, and they would flow for seven years. “Mr Walsh,” read one, “you have the worst cancer of all, cancer of the spirit.”

How was I so sure? Well, Armstrong tested positive for cortisone in that first Tour de France and only escaped sanction because the UCI, against its own rules, accepted a backdated medical prescription for the offending substance.

And then there was the clean young French rider, Christophe Bassons, who was ridiculed and bullied by his fellow riders. “Monsieur Propre” [Mr Clean], they hissed sarcastically. Bassons was the pussy who wouldn’t dope. Armstrong was the biggest bully. The persecution of Bassons was the single biggest reason I got on Lance’s trail. I found the doctor who helped him dope, then the former team-mate who doped with him, the physical therapist who saw it all, the team-mate’s wife who heard him admit it.

You can credit me with some perseverance but the real heroes were those people who spoke out: Steve Swart, Emma O’Reilly and Betsy Andreu. They put their necks on the line, because they believed an ugly truth was better than a beautiful lie. I agreed with them, but I was just doing my job, for which I was well paid.

Ben Foster (left) as Lance Armstrong in The Program, alongside the real Armstrong (right)

Armstrong got brought down by US federal officers and the testimonies they encouraged from multiple witnesses. The feds are not like journalists. We have tape recorders; they’ve got affidavits and subpoenas and they tell witnesses that perjury is just a short taxi ride from prison. And the other thing about the feds is that you can’t sue them. They got the goods on Armstrong. From there the case was taken up by the US anti-doping agency and that was it for the seven-time champion. Finito.

My final Lance book, Seven Deadly Sins, came out in December 2012. Two months later there was talk of a Hollywood film. Working Title, the successful London-based film company, bought the rights. Two and a half years later The Program, directed by Stephen Frears, was completed. It will be shown at a cinema near you from Friday 16 October, and it’s pretty good.

In truth, though, it is borderline absurd that a journalist who was much criticised for so long and successfully sued by Armstrong [the case cost The Sunday Times £300,000; in 2013 the paper launched its own case to recoup its losses and eventually settled with the cyclist] and who at times felt like an outcast in the press room, should now be praised for his doggedness. Being one of the characters in Frears’s fine movie is a bizarre end to the story.

I would suggest that during the enquiring years there was too much criticism of the journalist, just as I now know there is too much praise. But, as my fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Nothing succeeds like excess.”

Advertisement

The Program is in UK cinemas from today