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'He just can't help himself. If he could, he would have got right back into favour'

David Walsh, chief sportswriter with the Sunday Times, is our guest on this week’s Behind the Lines.

Lance Armstrong.
Lance Armstrong.
Image: PA

Updated Jul 28th 2020, 2:58 PM

SO IN SPITE all of the lies and the legal letters and the exhausting battle for the truth, Lance Armstrong can still draw in David Walsh.

Like the rest of us, Lance has a podcast these days. It’s called The Move, and it can count Walsh among its occasional listeners. 

“It’s one of the better cycling podcasts. I don’t mind listening to him, I’m not going to not listen to him on principle.

“He is quite a charismatic character. He can be very funny and he can be very insightful about the race. Then he will also say something that shows he hasn’t done his homework and he can be a bit hazy on the facts. But I do like his style. The guy is charismatic, whether you like him or not.” 

David, chief sportswriter with The Sunday Times, is this week’s guest on Behind the Lines, our sportswriting podcast exclusive to members of The42. 

(To sign up and gain access to a 37-episode back catalogue, head over to members.the42.ie.)

Each episode of Behind the Lines features an in-depth conversation with a sportswriter about their career, along with some of their favourite examples of sportswriting. When these elided during our conversation with David, Lance naturally came up. 

While David was to the forefront of the pursuit of Armstrong, he says it was a French journalist who wrote the single-best story on Lance’s doping: Damien Ressiot for L’Equipe in 2005. 

It was Ressiot who proved that Armstrong had taken EPO during the 1999 Tour de France, thanks to some ingenious sleuthing.

In ’99, organisers did not yet have a test to catch EPO in a cyclist’s system, but by 2005 they did, and a retrospective test on samples from ’99 threw up multiple positive tests for EPO. Ressiot was leaked that information and reckoned Armstrong’s sample was likely among those being tested, but he had a problem. 

All of the samples were anonymous. There were no names attached; the only way to identify the samples was with an assigned number, and Ressiot didn’t have the numbers. 

And so, as David explains, Ressiot pulled a masterstroke. 

“The people who have the numbers are the UCI. They were in the business of protecting Lance Armstrong. They, especially Hein Verbruggen, despised journalists, especially a journalist who wanted to investigate and find the truth.

“Damien Ressiot, they would have really disliked his approach as he was so damn good.

“He thought, ‘Lance Armstrong, one of the things he didn’t do in the Tour de France was apply for TUEs (Therapeutic Use Exemptions). He got one retrospectively in ’99 but never went into the race with a TUE, ever. It wasn’t his style. He didn’t do it.

Damien Ressiot said to Hein and Lance, ‘I want to do a story saying Lance rarely used TUEs. And what I want is a record of Lance’s doping control forms – copies of his doping control forms – that I can use to show he never used TUEs’. They ring up Lance’s lawyer, ‘This journalist in France wants to write a story about the fact Lance never used TUEs.’ They all think it’s a brilliant idea. This will show once and for all that Lance did it clean! So they supply Damien with all of Lance’s doping forms, and now Damien has the name and the number.

“He matches the numbers and there are loads of positives belonging to Lance. It was ingenious. They could say they were duped and all that, but what they couldn’t say was these aren’t Lance Armstrong’s numbers. They couldn’t say that. That was ingenious and I love that story.

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“How anyone could argue Lance was clean after Damien Ressiot’s story was like arguing the earth was flat. That was the single best story that anyone did in the Armstrong era.

“I was with Paul Kimmage and we read that story together. I would say that was the most ingenious investigation in sport ever done. Ingenious.”

Lance’s comeuppance did not arrive for many years after that story by Ressiot, and in 2012 was given a lifetime ban from cycling and stripped of all seven of his Tour de France titles.

Armstrong gave a confessional interview to Oprah soon after he was hit with his punishment, and these tell-all interviews have been a staple of his public life since, to the point he has, in the words of The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis, “donated his body to sportswriting.”

The most recent was a two-part ESPN documentary by Marina Zenovich, in which David appeared. 

“I was with friends who had just seen the Lance documentary and I asked what they thought. ‘The guy just can’t help himself’. The reason he did it was to present himself in a better light. She is open to Lance presenting himself in a more likeable way, but he can’t do it.

“He talked about seeing Jan Ullrich, who is suffering and has been vilified in Germany whereas other German riders who doped are revered, and says that makes no sense. You’re thinking, ‘I kind of get that.’ Then Lance says about his very good friend George Hincapie, ‘George Hincapie is loved in this country, and I’m hated. We did the same thing, how can that be?’

irish-journalists-david-walsh David Walsh. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Lance, you think you’re a victim here? You’re the guy who stood before 300 cancer survivors said to them, ‘People say I take drugs to win bike races. How ridiculous is that? You’ve been through what I’ve been through. You know what it’s like to get cancer. Am I going to go to my Doc to say ‘I want to win a bike race so give me what you want?’

“Everybody is nodding their heads and says ‘Of course not, when you’ve been through cancer you don’t mess around with your health’. Lance doesn’t realise that made him unique. No comparison is appropriate. When you watch that documentary you feel he just doesn’t get it. He still doesn’t get it.

“I think he paid a heavy price but I think it’s logical that he paid a heavy price as he didn’t come clean. USADA offered him a seven or eight-year ban and lose two tours if he co-operated. He told them to get lost, and they said, ‘If that’s the way you want to play it we’ll show you how we will play it.

“That was the craziest decision. If he loses two tours and gets a seven-year ban, so what. He is still the winner of five tours. Yes he cheated but they only took two tours away so maybe he won the other five fairly – even though he didn’t – but it would create confusion in people’s minds. But a life ban and lose all your tours? Nothing is left to the imagination there.

“The guy is charismatic, that’s why, if he was able to help himself – and he’s not – he would have got right back into favour.

“If it’s one message from Lance Armstrong’s life it is that doping gets you in trouble.” 

Listen to the full interview with David by subscribing here. 

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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