PtG Article 31.10.2007

Not quite Nelson - but almost

What do you get if you accuse an all-American sporting hero and cancer survivor of cheating? Job satisfaction, says LA Confidential author David Walsh.

David Walsh, author and Sunday Times journalist, spoke to Play the Game about the methods he used when writing “LA Confidential” his celebrated exposé of seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.

At the time, Armstrong was the ultimate sports hero – an all-American athlete who had beaten cancer and gone on to snatch cycling’s greatest prize from the Europeans not once but twice. He was, in Walsh’s words, “not quite Nelson Mandela – but almost”.

The story behind LA Confidential dates back to 2001, when Armstrong was already an iconic figure. His book “Back to Life”, which described his return to the limelight after a well-publicised battle with testicular cancer, was an international bestseller.However, as a well schooled cycling reporter with a decent knowledge of endurance levels, Walsh was immediately suspicious of Armstrong’s phenomenal run of form.

In May 2001, he  wrote a full page story for the Sunday Times entitled “saddled with suspicion” which pointed out that Armstrong’s achievements were aided by the then-discredited doctor Michele Ferrari, a fact which was omitted from Armstrong’s “inspirational” book.

Accusing one of the world’s favourite sportsmen of cheating was not going to win Walsh many friends. But as a journalist, he said, he felt obliged to follow the story. He agreed to collaborate with a French colleague Pierre Ballester to write a longer and more sceptical account of Armstrong’s rise. Both authors were aware that potential sources would be under pressure not to co-operate but to use a journalistic cliché, they will “always be people prepared to speak”.

Walsh then described the methodology used by himself and Ballester to further their investigations. In a case such as this, he stressed, sources had to be prepared to go on the record and stand fully behind their statements. He expected attempts to discredit his research – and he was not wrong.

In the end, Walsh and Ballester found they were not the only ones with suspicions. Plenty of people were willing to talk on the record, including many who had been close to Armstrong.

After the interviews were transcribed, they were sent them back to the sources for approval. The sources were also allowed to see the parts of the book related to their input to be sure they were happy with the context in which they were quoted.

One source, masseur Emma O Reilly, made a contribution running to around 14,000 words, for which Walsh and Ballester made the decision to pay her - a decision they still stand by despite strong criticism, particularly from the USA. The final draft, Walsh pointed out, used only three unattributed quotes. All the rest came from named sources.

Before publication, they checked the book thoroughly, anticipating legal action. They were not wrong. What they did not fully anticipate was the reaction from Armstrong’s cycling team, US Postal, which threatened to withdraw reporting privileges to any journalist seen speaking to the authors. As a result, Walsh was not even allowed to follow the tour in the same car as his long-standing journalist colleagues. Armstrong’s representatives sued the authors, the publisher, Emma O Reilly, and even L’Express, a magazine that had published extracts. In retrospect, Walsh said, Armstrong was at the time in negotiations to join the Discovery team, who may have needed additional assurance that the stories were untrue.

The book sold 85,000 copies in France and the allegations eventually appeared in English in a book entitled “From Lance to Landis” which included new information. However, the book did not sell well in the USA. Perhaps cycling fans did not want to know the details, Walsh suggested. They had invested a lot of emotion in Armstrong’s “miraculous” story. Why should they read a book accusing their hero of being a villain?

Walsh also spoke of nationalism being a factor in the reporting and acceptance of doping allegations. US journalists were very hostile to the allegations over Armstrong, he agreed, but UK journalists are often just as reluctant to question the integrity of British sporting heroes. Few people of any nationality want to see one of their own exposed as a doping cheat.

Despite disappointing US sales, Walsh was glad that the story made it into print. If he suspects that someone is cheating, Walsh said, any journalist owes it to himself and his profession to ask the right questions.