For one of journalism’s great fighters, David Walsh is notably slight. His figure is complemented by a soft and benign Irish accent and he even courteously leans forward to nestle in an unorthodox position, as if to ensure his chords will be picked up clearer on the Dictaphone. But when talk turns to Lance Armstrong Walsh morphs into the firebrand crusader he is rightly regarded as.
Nicknamed the ‘Little Troll’ by the disgraced cyclist, Walsh pursued Armstrong for 13 years and was earlier this month recognised as journalist of the year at the British Journalism Awards. Dogged, determined and – crucially – right about his suspicions that the Texan was a fraud, he said you didn’t need to be Woodward or Bernsetin to get it. But would Woodward or Bernstein have fought so persistently?
“It made me feel like a journalist,” he comments on Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, Walsh’s fourth book on America’s fallen icon. The verdict on Armstrong was only delivered in October but Walsh says his account was an “indulgence”.
“I didn’t have to find out what other people thought, I just had to write what I knew about the case and what I experienced along the way,” he explains. “From Lance to Landis took months and months and months whereas this took weeks and weeks and weeks. It’s a personal story and personal stories are far easier to write.”
Cycling books have become in vogue following the Armstrong revelations [although it is worth noting said revelations were listed in Walsh and Piere Ballester’s LA Confidential in 2004] with doper and former Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race winning the William Hill Sports Book of the Year. Does Walsh think Hamilton deserves praise for his honesty?
“Tyler Hamilton has really helped people’s understanding of doping and I give him great credit… no, can I change that? I give him credit,” Walsh says. “The people who get great credit are the people who told the truth when it was nothing in it for them except that telling the truth was important. Stephen Swart [the first whistleblower to alert the world of Armstrong’s doping] especially was vilified in New Zealand and now he’s New Zealander of the year, which is fantastic. That was one of the happiest moments I had throughout this saga.”
Walsh reflects in Seven Deadly Sins about how consumed his life was by Armstrong. His daughter Emily tweeted after a recent Sunday Times Q&A: “Good interview Dad! We watched it at dinner. You ranting about LA whilst we're trying to eat, no change there then :)” So is he more relaxed now?
“I thought I was always relaxed but actually I wasn’t. If I met you six years ago I’d be like, you’re from the f**king Huffington Post? I read what the guys from the Huffington Post say about Armstrong, they love Armstrong. There’d always be someone writing stuff about how it was cool to defend Lance Armstrong and that stuff wound me up.
“People gave Armstrong a latitude that they don’t give their best friends. Why? Because he’s powerful. Because he’s rich. Because he’s cool to know. In those days I was a bit of a crusader, I couldn’t meet anybody without trying to convince them that Armstrong was a fraud. It didn’t matter if it was someone in a queue for an X-ray machine at an airport or somebody in a coffee shop I ended up sitting beside, I’d notice their yellow wristband [Armstrong’s Livestrong charity] and I couldn’t leave it. I wouldn’t say I was deranged but I was on a mission.”
Throughout his Sunday Times career Walsh has conducted some riveting interviews and his former colleague Paul Kimmage recently wrote how Pete Sampras had once voiced his scepticism about the validity of Armstrong’s success. But Walsh insists interest in his own crusade was little.
“Gareth Southgate [whose autobiography Walsh was ghost writer for] was tremendously supportive and when he was manager of Middlesbrough he used to have raging debates with some of his sports science staff, some of whom were Armstrong supporters in the early days.
“And at an awards one night I was walking out and James Cracknell, whom I didn’t know, came over to me and said ‘I’ve read every line you’ve written about Lance Armstrong and I believe you’re totally on the right track, please keep it up, it’s important you expose this guy for the cheat I believe he is and you believe he is.’ And that really encouraged me, because James Cracknell didn’t have to do that. But there weren’t that many others.”
He soon draws his ire on to sportsmen and sponsors. Athletes he would speak with about Armstrong’s “heist” would still emerge inspired by the cancer survivor despite overwhelming evidence. He calls it the “mutual appreciation society”. But it is one astonishing 2001 Nike commercial which is indicative of the ignorance.
“When Nike did their ad and the first sentence he utters ‘This is my body, I can do what I like to it.’ Were Nike thinking this is Lance saying to people: ‘F**k you, I can do what I like’ or were they genuinely duped? People just didn’t want to know.”
Perhaps what distorted views of Armstrong was Britain’s libel laws. In 2004 the Sunday Times infamously had to cough up £600,000 to Armstrong for what was, remarkably, a diluted piece of journalism.
“When Alan English [Sunday Times’s deputy sports editor] sent me that piece I was away at the football Championship in Portugal  and he said ‘Have you read it?’ I said – this is half hour until deadline – ‘Yes, Alan, it’s a worthless piece. It’s taken all that was good out of the original. You might as well have not run it,’” Walsh recalls.
“I was the most ungracious p***k that anybody could ever meet. He had done so much to keep me in the newspaper because I had resigned and he had gone out on a limb but I was too involved. I got in too deep.”
Lance and libel laws, it transpires, are three ‘l’s which compel Walsh to air a compelling diatribe.
“The biggest effect of the libel laws was that it gave journalists who didn’t have that much stomach for the investigation of unmasking the truth an excuse. Because the libel laws were choking them. They were terrible. I quoted Emma O’Reilly [Armstrong’s former soigneur and one of the unsung heroes in exposing him] so many times and she used to say ‘I can tell the truth in France, I can tell the truth in America but I can’t tell it in the UK where I am a citizen.’ And that’s wrong.
“Justice Eady gave a judgement on a piece that Alan English wrote in The Sunday Times which eventually cost the paper £600,000. Schillings represented arguably the greatest cheat in the history of sport. He [Eady]’s in retirement now and I hope he has a lovely retirement. But I am absolutely thrilled he does not operate on the bench anymore.”
Armstrong, despite his disgrace, is apparently unrepentant. That infamous tweet of him just “lying around” surrounded by his seven yellow jerseys was a reflection of denial and delusion, publicly at least. Walsh, who interviewed Armstrong in a “bizarre but revealing” one-on-one in 2001 which is recounted in Seven Deadly Sins, however thinks Big Tex may be feeling small.
“I just thought it was sad,” he says of the infamous tweet. “If he’s so comfortable with those seven yellow jerseys all around him why did he change his Twitter profile to remove the words ‘Seven times Tour de France winner’?
“I think he’s obviously going through different moods. I would say there are days when he feels defiant, there are days when he is feeling utterly depressed about what’s happened, but overall his reputation is shredded and he’s got to try and rebuild it. But the starting point is the one he can’t go to, which is a full admission. The guy is on his knees.”
“He looked traumatised at that banquet in Austin after all his sponsors had deserted him. I didn’t see the Lance Armstrong of old, the swagger, the arrogance… that Lance Armstrong is gone.”
But Walsh won't be. Free of the Lance shackles, his enthusiasm about continuing to cover all sports is infectious and inspiring now he has achieved his own personal closure. A 500-mile round trip to watch Newcastle United versus Manchester City preceded a round of golf at the weekend. His appearance may be deceiving but David Walsh’s words pack a ferocious punch.
David Walsh's Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, published by Simon & Schuster, is available to buy now.