Chasing down Lance Armstrong

28 July 2013

It’s hard to know how to categorise David Walsh’s curiously titled book, Seven Deadly Sins*, about Lance Armstrong’s career as a doper-cyclist. Sports book, obviously: he memorably quotes another writer as describing sportswriters as being like the piano players in a bordello, and Walsh makes his living as Chief Sports Writer on the Sunday Times. Memoir partly, because Walsh was himself at the heart of the pursuit of Armstrong, a co-author of the French language L.A.Confidentiel which put many of the claims about Armstrong into the public domain (to the extent that the libel laws permitted) in 2004, and he was name-checked by Oprah in her interviews with Armstrong in early 2013.

It’s something more as well, something halfway between confessional and ‘I told you so’, because it takes a certain kind of craziness to stay with a story for fourteen years, especially when it’s damaging your reputation – not least because your target is taking frequent potshots at you – and even your closest friends are telling you it’s time to lay off the Lance stuff for a while for your own good.

This is a story about cycling, to be sure, and a well-written one, and every cycling fan should read it to understand how deep in the mire their sport was in the late 1990s and much of the 2000s, and how compliant the governing body, the UCI, was in all of that (of which, more later).

But it’s also a story about power and its discontents, about journalism, and about whistle-blowing – what makes people decide to do the right thing even when it comes with a heavy personal cost. The rest of this long post follows after the fold.

The nonchalance of the well-doped’

I worked as a journalist for about a decade, a while ago, and one of the things I learnt was that there wasn’t really such a thing as “investigative journalism”; there’s only journalism where the journalist keeps noticing anomalies, asking questions, finding sources, filling gaps, and than there’s the other stuff, where the journalist is happy to serve as part of the celebrity or political circus that passes for news for so much of the time.

Walsh says as much about the Armstrong story. Once you’d watched him win the first time trial in the 1999 Tour, and then seen him destroy the field on climb to Sestriere, “with the nonchalance of the well-doped”, and knew of his previous Tour form in those sorts of stages, and of the “failed test” for corticosteroids after the Prologue (which he also won), then the gaps in the story started to open up. All of this was common knowledge at the time, even the corticosteroids. “The thing about the Armstrong scandal”, he writes, “was that, even in 1999 … you didn’t need to Woodward and Bernstein to get it.”

Wanting to believe

The American Tour winner Greg Lemond said of Armstrong’s victories that “If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback or the history of sport. If he isn’t it would be the greatest fraud”. But one of the reasons we watch sport is that we want to believe, and the British sportswriter Richard Williams, long an Armstrong sceptic, captured this well (I think it was him) when he wrote that he wanted his admiration to be greater than his suspicion. One of the reasons that Lance story took so long to unravel was that it was too good. It was only later that it became too good to be true.

The meme about the cancer survivor who came back to win the world’s toughest mainstream sporting event was infectious. It also served multiple interests. The UCI liked it because it distracted from the drugs fiasco of the 1998 “Tour of Lies“. ASO, which runs the Tour de France, liked it because it promoted the Tour in the United States, and because they believed that the Tour might not survive another  disaster in 1999 similar to that of ’98. Journalists liked it, and so did their readers (“redemption” stories always play well), and the professional peleton liked it because the alternative was endless drugs raids and drugs investigations.

So one of the charms of the book is the way that Walsh and a handful of other journalists pursued the story, slowly finding the people who would talk, filling the gaps, collecting the evidence, despite the hostility, and lawsuits, from Armstrong and his allies. Walsh is wry about the benefit of working on a story that no-one else is interested in.

Feeling the heat

As he often reiterates, the people who really felt the heat were not the journalists (Walsh says more than once that we was just doing his job) but the witnesses, Betsy Andreu, Emma O’Reilly, Steve Schwart and others, as well as critics inside the sport such as Christophe Bassons, Filippo Simeoni, and Lemond, who were all victim of harassment, character assassination or worse. (Armstrong put intense pressure on Lemond’s business relationship with Trek bicycles to get him to withdraw, publicly, his comeback/fraud comment.) “Bullying” – the word used in USADA’s “Reasoned Decision” that led to Armstrong’s lifetime ban, seems too mild a word. As Walsh observes, Armstrong was a bigger bully than he was a cheat.

All of them suffered losses, emotional and financial, but stood their ground because they thought it the right thing to do. Indeed, one of the turning points in the story is when Walsh asks Betsy Andreu if she would repeat what she’d told him in a courtroom if necessary. “I’m not going to lie for Lance”, she says.

One of the big ‘what ifs’ of the book is whether Armstrong would have got away with it had he not decided to return to cycling in 2009. Walsh thinks it likely; I’m not so sure.

Raising the stakes

One of the features of the story is that every time more evidence emerges, the stakes go up and Armstrong has to increase the pressure. He and his lawyers became expert at settling disputes in their favour just before they had to go to court, which, of course, ran the risk of perjury. So perhaps it is apt that the only person who managed to snare Armstrong into testifying under oath was Bob Hammam, the former champion bridge player whose sports insurance company, SCA, had paid out millions in win bonuses after several of Armstrong’s Tour successes. Twist, then twist again; because Armstrong had lied under oath about his doping, USADA was able to strip him of all his titles, not just those inside cycling’s eight-year statute of limitations.

And sooner or later, one of the others was sure to talk, Hamilton, or Landis, or one of the other US Postal riders who knew the inside dope. Alex Butler, Walsh’s sports editor at the Sunday Times, says afterwards,

Americans were the leading players in this saga. I used to tell David: ‘Someone will become a born-again Christian, have a costly divorce to pay for or just simply want to tell the truth and unburden themselves …it’s the American way. And one by one, the riders of the US Postal team have told their story.

The UCI and its critics

No surprises, but cycling’s governing body, the UCI, doesn’t come out of the book well. Apart from the well-known parts of the story (the failed corticosteroid test in 1999, taking a donation from Armstrong after another failed test, or the blustering of the current President Pat McQuaid after USADA published its report) it also seems likely – from research done by the LA Confidential co-author Pierre Ballester – that they simply weren’t testing some of the samples they took in the mid-90s.

As Walsh says, by 1999 the UCI knew that a test for EPO was imminent. They could have stored the samples, tested them in 2000 or 2001, and banned the offenders. In its Reasoned Decision USADA documents the UCI’s record on all of this, without actually saying that it’s hard to trust the organisation. But this is the same UCI that preferred to silence critics by suing them. It’s difficult, reading Walsh’s book, to know how Pat McQuaid, or his friend and predecessor as UCI President Hein Verbruggen, can look at themselves in the mirror in the morning.

Seven Deadly Sins is good on the notion that the fight against drugs in sport is never going to be over – the rewards for cheating are far too high, as long as you don’t get caught. Walsh is impatient with Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 Tour winner, for suggesting in response to questions about doping that it’s now an issue that’s in cycling’s past.

Chris Froome’s performances in winning this year’s Tour have opened up the same questions, and given cycling’s recent history, this is inevitable. I’m pretty sure that Sky isn’t doping – I think they’ve made their gains through innovations in technology and importing training methods from other sports. We want top class sports performances to be possible on “bread and water“. Walsh has covered this year’s Tour “embedded” with the Sky team, which must be a contrast to the days when journalists asked him not to travel with them in their Press vehicles because they wouldn’t get access to US Postal if they were sharing with him. I look forward to reading his account.

* On the title: I get the connection of Armstrong’s seven Tour ‘wins’ with seven as in deadly sins. But with the best will in the world, Armstrong missed out on several of the Sins: gluttony and sloth, for example. Slack publishing. The lack of an index is also slack.

The photo at the top of this post was taken by Andrew Curry and is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

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