Friday, October 14, 2016

Extraordinary Allegations, Extraordinary Evidence

The story of Lance Armstrong, who was awarded, then stripped of seven Tour de France wins for doping, is as compelling as it was when most of the world, including myself, was blissfully ignorant of his cheating, many of us inspired by his success and comeback. Perhaps now it is even more compelling. Unlike many celebrities whose falls from grace are merely revelations of humanity drawn in contrast to inhuman expectations, Armstrong is a singularly dark figure. Not because his public persona and the reality underneath stand in such great contrast, but because he so brutally persecuted those who tried to tell the truth about him. High on Armstrong’s blacklist was London’s Sunday Times reporter David Walsh.
In Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, Walsh tells of his travels in the world of cycling, from being a fan of fellow Irishman and prominent cyclist Sean Kelly, to riding in a car on the Tour de France route as a sports journalist. He met Lance early in Armstrong’s career, before his bout with cancer. But from 1999, when Lance took his first Tour title, Walsh knew something was amiss. He continued to write this theory in Sunday Times articles, and in books. In 2004 he published L.A. Confidentiel: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong in France, because British and American publishers feared libel suits from the same Armstrong legal team that once successfully sued the Sunday Times. Lance claimed another title that year and would go on to garner two more. In 2007 he published From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France. Armstrong, then in retirement, would return in 2009 to claim third place in the Tour, and again in 2010 for twenty-third. After years of sticking to his story, Walsh was finally vindicated when Armstrong was stripped of all seven of his Tour de France titles in October of 2012.
Riveting from the start to the page-423 finish, this book is a ride as captivating as the Tour de France itself. The reader follows the investigation Walsh conducted from 1999, when he had to convince his editor that the hero of the day, humanitarian, inspirer of millions, was dirty. Running in tandem is the drama that played out in the press conferences, media tents, courtrooms and elsewhere as Armstrong and his many supporters and hangers-on played havoc with the lives of Walsh and those few willing to open up to him about the real Lance Armstrong. It has kept me intrigued about this story, and sadly disillusioned not only about professional sports, almost all of which have seen doping scandals, but about amateur and quasi-professional sports as well. As I write this on August 12, 2016, three Olympic athletes in three different sports from three different countries have been sanctioned for doping.
Seven Deadly Sins has been made into the movie The Program, which distills the story marvelously into a feature-length drama, with Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd) portraying the beleaguered David Walsh. Both the book and the movie are highly recommended.