John Craven, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth takes to the stage as he opens Monday evening’s proceedings by introducing Chief Sports Writer for The Sunday Times, David Walsh. Craven begins by saying that journalism is a profession where the line between intrusion and persistence is a difficult one to locate. This fine line is at the centre of probably the most in depth investigation into the media industry ever, The Leveson Inquiry, and despite a broken microphone Craven’s words seem extremely apt given the relevance of his statement, and the man he is introducing.
“Journalists should just report the story, but in this case I became part of it.”
Walsh’s voice rings clear across the auditorium as he begins the remarkable tale of of his thirteen year pursuit of Lance Armstrong, one of the most inspirational sportsmen of all time before the revelations that he was a drugs cheat. Before arriving at the event, which was hosted at the Guildhall in Portsmouth, I had more than pessimistically predicted to a number of friends that this would be a money making venture of Walsh’s in which he would plug his newly released book for sixty minutes. Within moments this glass half empty attitude was dispelled as it become clear that Walsh has an amazing story to tell and clearly just wants to share it.
He recalls that on the 22nd October 2012, the birthday of his son John, who passed away at the age of 12 after being knocked off his bike, that Pat McQuaid, Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), announced that Lance Armstrong had been found out as a drug cheat, and stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. Walsh describes his feelings in that moment as anti-climactic, before going right back to the inception of this story.
Walsh first met a 21 year old Lance Armstrong in 1993, as he was beginning to write a Canterbury Tales-style novel about the Tour. The idea was that a different cyclist would tell their story or anecdote from a different stage, providing a series of “fables” that detail the story of the whole tour from varying points of view. Walsh says:
“When I was talking to him during this interview he gave off this impression that ‘I’m Lance Armstrong and I have come here to win.’ It felt like I was getting in the lift on the ground floor with a guy who is going the whole way. Us journalists love that sort of thing, because you can boast by saying you were in that lift with him.”
Walsh then recalls a turning point in his life, the death of his son John. He says that when his son died he wanted to enrich his memories as much as possible and spoke to everyone he could about John. The story that stuck with him was from a primary school teacher. She explained that she was telling the story of the nativity, and spoke of how the Three Kings brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the birth of Jesus. She concluded the story by saying that Mary and Joseph went back to living a humble existence, when John remarked: “Why did they live like that, what happened to the gold they were given?” Catching the teacher off guard, she responded that nobody in 35 years had asked her that, yet it was the simplest and most obvious of questions. From that point forward David Walsh vowed to himself to always ask the obvious question.
In the spirit of asking the simple question, David Walsh explains that he was given a clear indication of Armstrong’s nature during the 1999 Tour de France. Armstrong appeared in the race a number of times before his break due to recovering from life threatening testicular cancer, and on each of these occasions Armstrong was way off the pace, with data from the stages showing he was often a long time behind the leaders. However upon his return he was suddenly way ahead, how could this be? Secondly Christophe Bassons, a cyclist competing, announced that he believed it to be humanly impossible to keep up with the leading pack unless you are doping. This sparked Bassons to be bullied on the track, and Walsh identified Armstrong as the ring leader. He says to the audience, who by now are in the palm of his hand: “Why would he target somebody who is against doping, unless he was doping himself?”
The final clue that Walsh reveals, is perhaps the most glaring of all. The Tour de France in 1998 was riddled with doping, and 1999 was the year in which the sport was due to emerge from the ashes as clean. With ten days remaining of the race in 1999 it was revealed that it will be the fastest race of all time. Walsh says to the audience: “How can they be going faster without drugs?”