Once upon a time, back in 1999, there was a good, yet average cyclist, who struggled on hills. Somehow he transformed into the greatest climber in the history of the Tour de France. This sporting star also miraculously improved dramatically after bravely battling testicular cancer. So, how did he do it?
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This is a question journalists and cycling enthusiasts the world over should have been asking. But the peculiar thing is nobody was.
Well, one person was. While the world was busy getting swept up in Armstrong-fever after he won his first Tour de France in 1999, one Irish sports journalist harboured serious doubts and began asking increasingly difficult questions.
Journalist David Walsh is a four-time Irish Sportswriter of the Year and a three-time UK Sportswriter of the Year (Photo: Chris Boland)
Ultimately, David Walsh’s relentless investigations were crucial in bringing down one of the most well respected athletes in the world, and his story has been adapted for the big screen in the new movie The Program.
This fascinating film is based on the book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong.
For a limited time only, order a copy of The Program and receive a free double pass to see the movie. Click here to get this special offer.
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Walsh is portrayed well by actor Chris O’Dowd, who is best known for his comedic performances in the IT Crowd, The Sapphires and Bridesmaids.
The lead role of Armstrong is played by Ben Foster, who admitted during an interview to The Guardian that he also took performance-enhancing drugs in preparation for the legendary role (but wouldn’t name them).
Stephen Frears is the director and is the brain behind films such as The Queen and Philomena. This fascinating film spans the length of Armstrong’s career, including his ‘clean’ beginnings, his diagnosis and battle with cancer, his charitable endeavours, and his ‘god-like’ return to the sport he would dominate for the best part of a decade.
Ben Foster plays the role of Lance Armstrong in The Program
Lance Armstrong's exposure as a doping cheat after he was stripped of his seven Tour De France wins is chronicled, as is his awkward Oprah Winfrey ‘confession’ interview.
This WYZA exclusive interview with David Walsh, the award-winning journalist who exposed drug cheat Lance Armstrong, reveals the truth behind the sporting legend.
Q. Have you heard anything from the Armstrong camp with reaction to the film and his portrayal?
No. Lance keeps being asked what he thinks of the film on Twitter. He just doesn’t respond, but I would think he’d be unimpressed. Ben Foster has portrayed him in a very interesting and nuanced way. The film has tried to show there are many sides to Lance Armstrong; not all of the sides were dark.
In a moving scene, they show him interacting with a young cancer victim and it feels like he really did care. However, it’s also true he used cancer as a shield. There’s no question about that. There’s lots of sides to Lance Armstrong and I think a lot of them are in the film. If Lance did watch it, I kind of feel he might have a sneaking regard for the job that Ben Foster has done.
“If Lance did watch it I feel he might have a sneaking regard for the job that Ben Fosters has done”
Q. How would you rate Chris O'Dowd's version of you?
I’d seen Chris in Bridesmaids, where he plays a charming, witty, guileless, endearing guy, but I wondered if he could play a hard-hitting journalist with a bee in his bonnet. My reservations were unfounded, because that’s exactly what he is in this film.
Chris O'Dowd plays the character of David Walsh in The Program
He's pretty much the same as I was in those years – somebody who saw a story that he didn't believe and became a little bit obsessed by it. I think Chris got that. For example, there's a scene the day after Lance’s first mountain victory during the 1999 Tour de France. Walsh (O’Dowd) is in character in a restaurant with three fellow journalists discussing what they've seen that day and he says, 'This transformation is just unbelievable!’ When one of the journalists asks why he is so obsessed with the issue, he replies, 'Why are you not obsessed by this?’ When he said that I thought he must have been a fly on the wall.
“We know that the world loved his story”
The number of times I’ve been in restaurants with journalists’ having this very argument was uncanny. He embodied the outrage I felt when my colleagues dismissed the issue.
I couldn't understand how they couldn't see what was so obviously fraudulent. I think a lot of the journalists did see it, but acknowledging that they saw it was just a very difficult place to go because we didn’t have evidence, and we knew that the world loved this story.
Q. Why did we all get so swept up in the Lance Armstrong story?
It was so life affirming – a guy coming back from cancer. Would you want to be the guy to rain on this parade? Many journalists made the decision they didn't want to be that guy, and I understood the reasons they did this. But my feeling has always been that in life you're offered a choice between a beautiful lie and an ugly truth and I will always go for the ugly truth.
“In life you're offered a choice between a beautiful lie and an ugly truth and I will always go for the ugly truth”
Q. Was there ever a point during your investigations when you thought about dropping the story?
I was always hell bent on getting the story out there. I had no intention of stopping, no inclination to stop. A lot of your readers would remember the Robert Redford movie, All The Presidents Men, about journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein pursuing Richard Nixon. It’s obvious those guys were having the time of their journalistic lives. I was chasing a sporting icon on a much smaller scale. It was the time of my journalistic life! You're looking for sources, you're looking for people who were around during the important moments in this story and you want them to tell you what they saw. When you do secure sources, it’s an adrenalin rush to realise, ‘I have somebody who's telling me the truth.’
“I was chasing a sporting icon”
You’re out their seeking the truth and you get people to trust you and tell you what they saw. Once those people come on board and become your sources, the option of you ever leaving the story or walking away is gone. I had a loyalty to those people to stay with this story until the very end, and to stay on the case and continue defending them because they were being attacked.
Emma O’Reilly worked at US Postal for five years and was a great source of mine, as was Betsy Andreu. Lance later referred to them as, ‘a crazy b@#ch’, and ‘an alcoholic wh@#e’ respectively. They were incredibly brave and strong women. I wasn’t going to say, 'Well, that was a great story for me last year and I’ve moved on to something different this year.’
Q. It seems as though Armstrong thought he was invincible. Was he a sociopath?
A lot of people will go to the movie thinking he was a sociopath and they wouldn’t be disabused of that notion. To a degree he was a sociopath and I think that’s why he found the Oprah Winfrey interview so difficult.
When Oprah was asking about all the things he'd done, and Lance was admitting to lying, cheating, and being abusive to certain people, it wasn't believable.
“To a degree he was a sociopath”
The difficulty was that his brain told him to be contrite, show empathy and express how sorry he was for all that happened, but he just couldn't do it emotionally. Intellectually he knew he had to do it, but emotionally he couldn’t go there. Everybody said 'Oh he's not sorry for all the things he did, he’s only sorry he was caught’.
Lance Armstrong's no-holds-barred interview with Oprah
That interview that was meant to be the first leg on the road to redemption and turned out to be totally unhelpful from Lance’s point of view. It was a masterful interview by Oprah Winfrey, but it didn’t help Lance Armstrong one bit. And the reason it didn’t help him is because he couldn’t convince people he was genuinely contrite and that’s always a difficulty for someone with sociopathic tendencies.
“Lance was admitting to lying, cheating, and being abusive”
Q. The film is based on your book Seven Deadly Sins. How closely does the film's script stick to the book?
Everything in the film is in the book, but it’s a question to how much weight you give to different elements of the book. The film goes through and cherry picks essential elements to ensure the film is an authentic version of what happened in this story, and that is what I like about the film. I believe it is an honest attempt to tell the story accurately – it isn’t a Hollywood bastardisation of an extraordinary story.
Q. How long do you think doping would have continued had you not stuck with the story?
The people who were close to Lance Armstrong knew he was doping. Though nobody said anything directly, measures were being taken – even before Lance was officially caught – to make doping controls better. After he retired, they bought in biological passport testing in 2008, so they really did want the sport cleaned up and the improvements had started to come.
However, I think Lance being brought down accelerated that movement towards making cycling a cleaner sport. I believe cycling is now a much cleaner sport than it was previously. I don’t think it's 100 per cent clean but I think it's gone a long way towards regaining some credibility as a clean sport.
“The people who were close to Lance Armstrong knew he was doping.”
Q. Do you believe recent Tour de France winners have been doping?
I’m not saying this because I’m speaking to an Australian, but I tend to make the cut off with the last five tours, starting with Cadel Evans in 2011. I covered the last three tours and I feel it is now possible to win the tour clean.
Q. Has the Lance Armstrong saga turned you off the sport of cycling?
It changed me the sense that once upon a time I loved cycling blindly, and I don’t love it blindly anymore. I go there and I really enjoy the racing and I think it’s a fantastic event, but the fact that I’m able to enjoy it now relates to the fact that I believe it’s possible to win the race clean.
The moment I think otherwise is the moment I don’t go. There’s no fun in waiting on a mountain for someone who is basically the best of all the doped riders in the race.
Q. What are you working on now?
I’ve been really intrigued by this story coming out of Russia about doping. I spent a good deal of time speaking with Vitali Stepanov who was a whistle blower in that case and I find his story inspirational. People ask me, ‘Who are your heroes in sport now?’ and Stepanov, who used to work with the Russian Anti-Doping agency, wouldn’t accept any bribes and eventually blew the whistle on what was going on. He's as close to a hero as I see in sport now.
Q. When did you last speak to Lance Armstrong?
Since his fall from grace there have been a couple of times when I’ve felt he’s hinted at welcoming some kind of response from me. But I have no interest in speaking to Lance until I feel he’s able to tell the whole truth about what went on.
The controversial image of Armstrong lying amongst his tainted yellow jerseys which he posted on his Twitter account after he was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles (Photo: Twitpic/Lance Armstrong)
What we’ve got from Lance since his fall is a kind of a la carte attitude towards the truth. Some things he'll tell, some things he won't tell, and to me that’s not good enough. What happened during his years of being this demi god in sport was so bad that the only way that he can begin to climb back towards respectability is by telling the entire truth, and from what I can see Lance is not ready to do that yet. Until he is, I have no interest in having any dialogue with him.
“I have no interest in speaking to Lance until I feel he’s able to tell the whole truth about what went on”
Q. Do you think he ever will be ready to speak the entire truth?
There is talk that when all the cases are over he will write a book, and that will be the time that he will have the option of telling the whole truth. If he writes that book and he still says he can’t remember what happened in the hospital room, it’s not good enough.
I know what Betsy Andreu went through, she was one of my sources who heard him admit to his doctors in October 1996 about all his doping and she got so much criticism and so much vilification for telling the truth. The least that she deserves now is for Lance to say, ‘Yes, what Betsy heard that day she heard and she never lied’. She deserves that, and until he’s prepared to give that I don’t think we should take him that seriously.
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