I don’t recall exactly where and when it was that I met journalist David Walsh, not long after I had met Lance Armstrong for the first time, but I do recall his shock tinged with anger that I had ‘fallen for the Armstrong lies.’ I think it was at a football match.
Indeed I had fallen for the Armstrong story which even he now admits was founded on cheating and then lying about the cheating. I said something to Walsh along the lines of speaking as I find, that I was doing a series for the Times on great sportsmen and women, not devoting a career to investigating Armstrong, and that yes, I did find him convincing when he described the kind of drug testing he had endured for years, the hatred the French authorities had for him, the defiance that his success was built on training harder, focusing more, making sure he had the best people around him. The political campaigner in me also identified with, and was persuaded by, his observation, when I asked which he feared most – defeat to Jan Ullrich or death by cancer – that losing and dying are ‘the same thing.’ I saw in that his determination. Perhaps I should have been more open to the possibility that it meant he would literally do anything required to win.
I only watched the first half of the Oprah Winfrey interview. Once Armstrong’s ‘yes’ answers were delivered to the yes or no doping questions, as a journalistic endeavour it went a little downhill, but when he was back in denial mode, the denials were expressed in exactly the same way, and with the same conviction, as when I met him at his training base in Spain several years ago, and later for a TV interview in Belgium. He was right to point out that he was not the most believable guy in the world right now.
What I didn’t tell David Walsh, and didn’t include in the piece I wrote, was the venom with which Armstrong expressed his loathing for the Sunday Times reporter. It would not have been news to the journalist, and perhaps I instinctively sided with Armstrong because I knew a thing or two about being on the wrong end of media lies. But whereas on the accusations levelled at me, I can defend myself because I know the truth, I can certainly admit to David Walsh that he was right and I was wrong.
The reason Armstrong was able to live his lie so long was because so many people wanted it to be true. Partly it was the cancer survival story. But it was also the desire people have to celebrate specialness in sport. There were few more special sights than seeing Armstrong rip apart a field on a mountain stage of the Tour de France.
That Bradley Wiggins won it riding more slowly than Armstrong and other since banned riders underlines, I hope, that the pro sport has begun to sort itself out, and British Cycling can claim a lot of credit for that. But for all the bad Armstrong has done, those riding at the top of the sport now also know that the profile and income the sport generates has a bit to do with the Armstrong legend too. As to where his story goes now, who knows? The Oprah chat was a chapter, not the book. He will hope it is the first step to redemption, but he knows he is a long way from that. Others will hope it paves the way for lawsuits, return of vast earnings, not to mention fraudulently obtained libel case gains.
The horror for Lance, a control freak, is that he knows he is very limited in what he can do to control the outcomes.
As for David Walsh, he deserves every accolade that comes his way.