Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong is David Walsh’s third book on the subject of Lance Armstrong and doping. The Irishman who works as the Sunday Times‘ chief sportswriter has previously penned L.A. Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong (in French) and From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France.
Holding a sporting hero and inspirational cancer icon up to the harsh light of truth is not easy, as you’re going to disappoint an awful lot of people along the way. Walsh did it with more zeal than the average journalist and this book is very much his story. He admits it consumed him for many years, and even when he was no longer covering cycling he still managed to get dragged back in. Getting the truth out is compelling for any journalist worth their salt.
Walsh started covering the Tour de France in 1982 – then a fan of the exploits of compatriots Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche. In those early years he was quite prepared to downplay things like hearing the rattle of pills in Kelly’s back pocket before a race where he finished third and subsequently tested positive – because Walsh was writing a biography about Sean Kelly at the time.
Walsh interviewed Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France in 1993, and was impressed by his character. “I wanted to like him,” wrote Walsh. “He had something inside that made him unlike any other young sportsman I had met. Radioactivity.”
In 1995, Walsh experienced tragedy when his 12-year-old son John was killed by a driver while cycling home. John’s ability to question myths stuck in his father’s mind, and over the next few years David Walsh changed his stance too. It started with the Irish swimmer Michelle Smith, who performed amazingly well at the Atlanta Olympics before being banned two years later for tampering with her urine sample. Walsh and a couple of his colleagues questioned the Atlanta performances on the basis that they were too good to be true, and while she was never stripped of her three gold medals, subsequent events did not cast her in a good light.
By the start of the 1999 Tour de France, Walsh was very much the skeptic. He felt Armstrong’s ride in that Tour was too good to be true and began to dig a little deeper, earning himself the enmity of Armstrong, his entourage, most of the public and some of his close colleagues in the process. He helped bring to light the fact that Armstrong was working with Dr Ferrari, and was the first to get Betsy Andreu, Emma O’Reilly and Stephen Swart to go on the record about their time with Armstrong’s teams and their experiences of doping.
In 2004, together with L’Equipe journalist Pierre Ballester, he co-wrote L.A. Confidential, which could only be published in French because of the stringent UK libel laws. Even so, when the Sunday Times ran a piece based on the book they were successfully sued for defamation by Armstrong. There was no hard proof that Armstrong had doped, just the strong suggestion he had based on testimonies of a few former colleagues. That’s usually not enough to defend a libel case in the UK and it cost the newspaper a total of £600,000, attributed to legal fee costs for both sides. No specific damages are mentioned as it was settled out of court. They haven’t got the money back. Yet.
After Armstrong retired in 2005, with seven Tour victories, he was seemingly impervious to ever officially being busted for doping. Walsh turned his energies to other sports, more or less leaving the one that had consumed his life and career for so long. He devotes a chapter to the Floyd Landis rise and fall from grace in the 2006 Tour, then goes into some detail about the SCA Promotions case before picking up the trail in 2010, when Landis dropped the bomb that would lead to USADA’s investigation and reasoned decision that Armstrong had doped his way to victory in all of his Tours.
A story about a story
Seven Deadly Sins is an interesting read if you want details of what it was like trying to expose Lance Armstrong. A story about the story, if you like.
We think the book works well and is a compelling read up until the point Walsh stops covering the Tour. Thus the Lance comeback Tours in 2009 and 2010 are barely mentioned. Then it becomes more of an appendix, describing events that led to Armstrong’s downfall but mostly from afar rather than first hand. There a plenty of interesting nuggets in it but we found the change in style a little messy and rushed.
Given Armstrong’s lifetime ban and the stripping of his seven Tour de France victories as a result of the USADA investigation, Seven Deadly Sins is likely to be Walsh’s last book on this particular affair. But we hope that a journalist of Walsh’s quality hasn’t finished his investigative reporting career, as there will always be scandals in all walks of life that are worth bringing to light.
Walsh’s Seven Deadly Sins is published by Simon & Schuster and is available for £18.99 / US$21.95.