On October 22nd 2012 Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour De France titles and he received a lifetime ban from cycling. The International Cycling Union (UCI) accepted the findings of the 1,000 page United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) report and issued sanctions banning Armstrong from the sport and stripping him of his seven tour titles. One man knew Armstrong was a fraud from the start and here is his account titled Seven Deadly Sins.
For David Walsh, chief sports writer for the Sunday Times, the curtain came down on this saga on the day his son John would have turned thirty – October 22nd. However, John died seventeen years before in a tragic bicycle accident. He was aged only 12. In his short life John inspired his father with his inquisitive nature. John asked questions about things that others took for granted. Walsh spent 13 years in pursuit of the truth about Lance Armstrong and he frames this quest as one that honours his son’s memory. The crusade went on longer than John’s short life but Walsh’s determination never wavered. From 1999 to now, he painstakingly sought evidence to build a case that started out as a gut instinct. With this book, Walsh has written his definitive take on the story that has dominated his life since Lance Armstrong crossed the finish line to win the 1999 Tour De France. On that day, the Sunday Times correspondent kept his hands by his side refusing to applaud this fairytale comeback. By then he was no longer a ‘fan with a typewriter’ he had seen cycling’s drug-fuelled dark side and he knew that Lance was its greatest incarnation. So Walsh devoted himself to the task of debunking this sporting messiah. By doing so he “put himself in Armstrong’s bad books, the library from which there is no escape.”
Walsh got this book to press with a similar speed to the Peleton descending from the peaks of the Alps during the Tour. He has obviously had the bulk of it written for a number of years, at least in his head. He gets across the story with an ease that speaks of a life immersed in the topic. Walsh juggles a large array of characters throughout the book and is determined to acknowledge the major role they played in unveiling the deceit. Over the years he has picked up various insiders who have put their professional lives in jeopardy to go on the record and tell their stories. He manages to jump deftly between these characters without losing his reader, “Here’s Betsy Andreu. She was on the inside. Now she’s on my side.” Walsh witnessed the determination of those who had been close to Armstrong and their willingness to go on record with their accounts and risk their livelihoods, which were more entwined in cycling than Walsh’s, and this convinced him that he was doing right. In order to repay them for the risks that they took and the slander that they endured he names and gives them a voice in this gracious account.
In the book we see Walsh acknowledge his beginnings as a naïve observer before morphing into the sceptic who is unwilling to ignore sports biggest pharmacist in the room – it’s a journey for the sportswriter who is determined to be more journalist than fan. Initially his innocence is seen when he is unable to question his hero Sean Kelly after hearing pills rattle in his pocket moments before a race. In hindsight it was seminal; his first glimpse at the reality of professional cycling and the shedding of his blind fan-dom. But he still wrote an unquestioning biography of his then hero and he failed to raise questions that that moment should have posed. Walsh looks back on that with dismay seeing a fan unable to see the obvious. Through watching his friend Paul Kimmage’s brief and unfilled stint as a pro cyclist he was awoken to the effect that drugs would have on riders who choose to ride clean. Kimmage never stood a chance in a cheaters’ race. The cycling careers ruined by a dirty peloton acted as a spur. He began asking questions. Guys like Kimmage and Christophe Bassons whose dreams never soared because of the prevalence of drugs in their sport buoyed Walsh for the long-haul fight.
During the book Walsh gives insights into his profession. One is an anecdote of how he convinced his then editor Vincent Browne from the Sunday Tribune that Kimmage was a perfect fit for journalism. Kimmage had been dictating his thoughts to Walsh who would compile a column from them but soon it became clear that Kimmage thought in fully formed pieces and once Walsh managed to impart this to Browne he then offered Kimmage a job the next time he touched down in Dublin. Browne was responsible for giving many young sports writers a start as editor at the Tribune.
Walsh uses W.B. Yeats as a device to tell his story. It mostly works but at times he succumbs to terribly simple clichés and that is something that should be eradicated from sports writing when the transition is made from column to book form. It can be somewhat forgiven with deadlines looming but a definitive account of cycling’s biggest scandal should have been freed from this by an editor. Twice Walsh mentions that “things had changed, changed utterly.” I’d like to say that the ‘terrible beauty’ that Yeats ushered in with that line in the poem ‘Easter 1916’ was the birth of the most used sports writing cliché. Perhaps the race to press hampered this as it’s the only complaint one can have about the Walsh’s writing. He uses Yeats more aptly in rounding up the book as he sees his debt as naming and giving a voice to those that he has worked with over the thirteen years to uncover the scandal. The closing pages allows them to give their final words on a huge chapter for each of them. Armstrong has silenced them for years with his legal machine and bullying tactics but now they can tell their stories more freely as before these revelations Walsh was the only one listening.
Walsh’s account is not about Lance Armstrong, although he is the frame, instead it is about those that pursued him. It is a look at sports journalism itself and the role that Walsh and his colleagues play in cycling’s drug scandal and drugs in sport in general. It is about power and the questioning of it from a man who has done so for his whole career. On October 22nd Lance Armstrong became “history, another ageing story of cheating and lying and doping and bullying and sport that wasn’t sport.” For Walsh, this book is more personal than that – it’s for John.