The biggest sports story of 2012 was not Usain Bolt, Katie Taylor, Michael Phelps or the London Olympics. No, the biggest story of last year and perhaps the last decade and a half was the final unmasking of Lance Armstrong as one of the most prolific drug cheats in sport.
And at the heart of it was former Leitrim Observer journalist David Walsh.
David’s dogged pursuit of the truth about Armstrong who doped his way to seven Tour de France victories saw him win not only the Sports Journalist of the Year title last year but also the overall Journalist of the Year award.
His book “Seven Deadly Sins – My pursuit of Lance Armstrong” has been a huge success, a fascinating insight into the world of professional cycling, its pervaise doping culture and an in-depth look at the character of Armstrong, not often seen in the mainstream media who were quite happy to pedal the myth of the American cancer survivor.
David was in Dublin for the recent Ireland-England Six Nations clash and he kindly took time out of a busy schedule to meet up for a chat. First up, however, was the fan-like request for a signing of my copy of “Seven Deadly Sins” and then that of my brother, a die-hard cycling fan who never bought into the illusion of Armstrong.
David graciously signed both books, answered quite a few questions from the brother on cycling, past and present, and with an enthusiasm that belies the hundreds of interviews he has done since Armstrong finally admitted that he had cheated to win the Tour de France.
Of course, it wasn’t all praise that David had to contend with over the years as Armstrong and his cronies led a campaign of whispers, innuendo and threats against the Kilkenny native, including a lawsuit the Sunday Times were forced to settle, a settlement that cost the paper €1 million in 2006.
So there must be quite a disconnect between the villifaction he endured and the praise now being showered on David - “Maybe, but my attitude is better late than never and I feel appreciative, there has been a huge out-pouring of people saying well done, you stuck with it, you were right, I’m really glad you did it.”
Yet praise is soon deflected to those who stood up and told the truth about Armstrong - “If I sit back and think about it, I was being paid by the Sunday Times when I was doing it and there was plenty of people I was quoting, who were helping me get the story out there and they were being vilified and those people are deserving of more credit than I am.
“And I say that every chance I get but I truly mean that. They were put through the wringer and if I ever got upset, it was on their behalf. When Armstrong called Emma O’Reilly a whore, I was so angry, I just thought how can he get away with that but at the time he was able to get away with a lot of stuff.”
A lot of “stuff” included intimidation, law suits, threats and insults but what is often over-looked is that Walsh was first and foremost a fan of cycling, David’s pursuit of the truth was motivated by the fate of the honest rider, the cyclist who did it clean.
“There was this general perception that everyone was doping, that everyone was at it. That isn’t true, it never was true,” says David, “In every Tour, there were people who were riding clean and if you’re a journalist, in my view, they’re the guys you’ve got to stand up for. It is the same with the kid who wants to play football and put the ball over bar, he doesn’t want to hit people off the ball and he sure as hell doesn’t want to be hit off the ball himself. You stand up for what’s right.”
The pursuit of what’s right was not easy but it was immensely satisfying, even if it has occupied a great deal of his working life since Armstrong won his first Tour in 1999 - “If Armstrong had never been caught, I have always been of the view that this was the best thing, the most satisfying thing I had ever done in my life as a journalist and if I do journalism for another ten or 15 years, it will still be the most satisfying thing.
“At the time, particularly in the early years, it did feel like I was in the small minority who was asking these questions but I felt it was the right thing to do. This guy to me was a fraud and it needed to be said. You have to have some sense of what is right and wrong and then you have to have the doggedness or whatever it is to keep on saying it and I certainly had it.
“Believe it or not, all this Armstrong stuff, it was never tough. People say to me you must have been under stress, I wasn’t, I loved it, I felt this was journalism.”
Yet there is no doubt that anyone reading Seven Deadly Sins will soon realise the toll the pursuit had on David himself, his family life and his career - “We’d sit at home in the evening time and all of us would be discussing it and the kids would say to me ‘Dad, we don’t doubt that Armstrong is a cheat but you’ll never be able to prove it and he’ll end up getting away with it’.
“And I felt that too, I thought he’d end up getting away with it. And I’m really pleased that he didn’t, not really for my sake but just for the sake of the truth and for the sake of what’s right is right, if you cheat to that extent, you really shouldn’t get away with it.”
Indeed, David recalls with laughter his daughter’s reaction to his appearance on a live-streaming of her father from the Sunday Times offices after Armstrong’s admission of guilt - “Emily puts out a tweet that says ‘Hi Dad, we’re at home here having supper, you’re ranting about Lance Armstrong so nothing has changed then’. But everybody thought it was the right thing to do, nobody said we shouldn’t be doing this.
“In fairness to the Sunday Times, they were very supportive because it ended up costing them a million pounds. Hopefully, they can get most of that back now and it looks like they will but at the time, it didn’t look like they would. It has turned out to be a good story for the Sunday Times because people think that it what newspapers should be doing.”
Associated mostly with cycling, David terms himself a fan of sport first and foremost and it is the contest that inspires him in his working life - “Good sport is good sport, regardless of the sport. I have never covered Wimbledon until the last two years but I’ve gone there and I’ve watched it and I’ve really enjoyed it.
“I come back for the Hurling All-Ireland every time Kilkenny are in it because I think this Kilkenny team have been fantastic. When I was in Leitrim, I covered Leitrim in National League matches and in the Championship, I used to cover Abbey Rovers playing soccer and I enjoyed all of that.
“I don’t think it matters that much the level it’s at in some respects. If it is a really good competitive contest in some respect, you can stop and watch a game and if two teams are going at each other 100% in virtually any sport, it is the contest that engages you. The one thing you don’t want is one team running away with it and the other team not being able to compete, that’s no fun.”
But enthusiasm is hard to maintain in the face of an ever increasing number of high profile doping case - “I don’t think I’m as enthusiastic as I was, I’m a bit more realistic. I didn’t even want to cover the Tours that Armstrong was winning but I felt I should be.
“I remember I had a row with a colleague, and I won’t name him because what I said to him wasn’t very polite or decent. It was late night at the European Championships in 2000 and we had a bit too much to drink and he said to me if you don’t believe in Armstrong and you don’t believe in this race, why do you go there and cover it. You’re telling us they’re all on drugs and you still want to go there and cover it.
“And I said to the guy, the reason I’ll go because if I don’t go, they’ll send an idiot like you. It wasn’t very polite, it wasn’t nice but the point is that he would have gone and he wouldn’t have asked one question. He would have been happy to say to his frien‑ds I’m on the Tour De France, I’m going to be in France for three and a half weeks.
“He wouldn’t have cared one bit about the fact that there were guys at the back who were riding clean, who were getting hammered, who were having their careers stolen. That was always the big thing for me, what about the guy who wants to play by the rules, doesn’t he have any rights?”
And David gives some credit for his zeal for championing what’s right to a Leitrim source - “There was guard who worked in Drumkeerin when I was there, Arthur Boyle, a lovely man. We were talking in Drumkeerin one day and he said your job has something in common with my job.
“Arthur said neither of us is paid to be popular. Totally true, it is not what we’re meant to be, popular, we’re meant to be credible and implement the rules and do it as best we can.
“Obviously you don’t want to be all the time going after people but if you see something that you think is wrong, don’t ignore it, you can’t. That is what Arthur said and I’ve never forgotten it.”