Listen: Journalist David Walsh chats to Laura Bennett about Lance Armstrong and ‘The Program’.
Shockwaves spread the sporting world in 2012, when former cycling hero Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour De France jerseys for doping.
One man who wasn’t shocked, though, was Irish sports journalist David Walsh. For 13 years he’d seen through Armstrong’s heroic façade, and fought long and hard to uncover the cyclist’s cheating scandal.
The new film The Program – in cinemas now – tells the story of David and his key role in the fight to reveal the truth about Armstrong (see the trailer below).
In an interview with Hope 103.2 movie critic Laura Bennett, David Walsh talked about the experiences that inspired the film.
“I’d met Lance when he was 21 and I was 38 years of age at the time,” he said. “He was in his first Tour De France and I really liked him. I thought he was a really interesting kid. I thought he had so much drive.
“Then, six years later [when] I saw him, he’d come back from cancer and transformed himself into a superman. And my feeling was that this wasn’t right. And basically I just didn’t believe it.”
When Facts Are More Important Than The Story
David said his interest wasn’t so much in bringing down Lance Armstrong, but in “getting the truth out there”.
“In life sometimes you’ll be faced with this dilemma: Which do you want – the beautiful lie, which Lance’s victory in the Tour De France was, or a pretty ugly truth?
“My preference would always be for the ugly truth.”
How One Lie Continued For So Long
One wonders how Armstrong’s cheating continued for so long. David said it was partly to do with the number of people who were earning money from his innocence.
“When you go to a sports event now, there are lots of people with vested interests: television, the organisers, the sponsors, they want you to see it in a particular way,” he said.
“A lot of people wanted us to see Lance’s victories, and this great life-affirming story. It had a lot riding on it. Except it wasn’t true.”
“A lot of people wanted us to see Lance’s victories, and this great life-affirming story.
“Because this man had life-threatening cancer, and not only has he survived, but he’s come back and is winning the world’s most gruelling sporting event. And he’s not just winning it once, he’s winning it twice, three times, all the way up to seven.
“Now, there was a lot of people who could make a lot of money out of that. A lot of cycling organisers who could see the number of fans go up. Television producers who could see their audience go up. Journalists who will get extra readers because people would want to read about this.
“So this had a lot riding on it, and most of it seemed good. Except it wasn’t true.”
Lance Armstrong’s Impact On Cycling
Watch: ‘The Program’ trailer.
In “I thought it was a tremendous desecration of the sport. I mean this is a sport that a lot of people loved. Men on bikes going up really big mountains on a three week pilgrimage like the Tour De France, it’s an extraordinary event. And in the 21st century when we don’t really have epics any more, this was as close to an epic sport event as you could get.
And you had this guy coming along and being hailed a great, great champion.
And if the story was true, he was that – [but] I knew it wasn’t.”
A Journalist’s Obsession With The Truth
Being a stickler for the truth, David is the first to admit he “became a bit obsessed” with getting people to believe his suspicions. The movie The Program portrays that obsession.
The writer didn’t care how the story affected his career.
“I had no interest in going with the flow,” he said. “A lot of the journalists at the time would’ve felt, “I have reservations about Lance too, but I don’t really have evidence, and if I start saying that I’m questioning his victories, I’m going to get myself into a lot of trouble, I’m going to have a lot of explaining to do”.
“[But} I never minded being in trouble with this and having to explain myself. Because I felt “that’s what I’m paid to do”.”
Elite Sportspeople: A Mostly Selfish Bunch
Watch: David Walsh talks with film interviewers ‘HeyUGuys’
While many people look to sports champions as heroes, David said that in reality, they can often be lacking in depth of character.
“To be an elite sportsperson, to get to the very top, selfishness is part of it,” he said. “They really do need to put a lot of focus and attention on their own careers. That’s what makes them very good.
“It’s a real challenge for them to be a rounded human being, and a generous human being, given how much attention they have to give themselves and their own career.
He said as a sports journalists he often felt invisible when interviewing elite sportsmen.
“They’re used to people being obsessed about them,” he said. “It’s almost like they don’t see any need to see you in human terms.
“I think that innate selfishness is part of an elite athlete, and without it they wouldn’t achieve what they achieve. So when they do manage to become really interesting or fantastically rounded individuals, I think that’s a tremendous achievement.”
What Happens When Our Heroes’ Flaws Are Exposed
When he was a young sports journalist, David says he used to look up to sports champions as heroes. These days he’s wiser.
“A guy is born with a great talent for playing rugby, or he’s got a talent for football or he’s got a talent for running. Does that make him heroic? In my eyes, it doesn’t,” David said.
“There’s a lot of sportsmen I admire, like, and believe in. But I don’t really see any of them as heroes.
“It may mean that he gives us a lot of fun watching him do it; it may mean that we totally admire how proficient he is, how professional is, how talented he is. But I don’t see it as heroic.
“A lot of what we loved about sport as kids has been challenged by professional sport and by elite sport.”
So Who Are Our Heroes Now?
For heroes, David says he now looks outside the world of sport, to people who make truly heroic choices.
“Two days ago I was in Geneva listening to Dick Pound deliver a report on doping in Russia, and it’s grim – completely depressing,” he said.
“These 19 and 20-year old women in Russia [are] being given the most serious anabolic steroids, put on programs, expected to be always taking drugs.
“He’s had to leave Russia…he’s lived in hiding for the last year. If you want a hero, that’s the place to go.”
“There’s a young Russian guy, Vitali Stepanov, who worked for the Russian anti-doping agency and all the corruption around him, and he said “I’m not going with this”.
“When they offered him bribes he refused to take it. When they told him that they couldn’t test this athlete, he said “my job is to test this athlete, I’m doing it”.
“He eventually got himself sacked, but he decided he was going to tell the world about what was going on. He’s had to leave Russia with his wife and young child, he’s lived in hiding for the last year.
“If you want a hero, that’s the place to go.”
‘The Program’ Portrays Moral Drama
The Program is directed by Stephen Frears and also stars Dustin Hoffman.
It portrays not only Armstrong’s moral weaknesses, but also the ethical struggle experienced by Armstrong’s teammate Flloyd Landis—who also tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Landis comes from a devout Mennonite background and his character in the movie, played by Jesse Plemons, highlights the moral issues around doping.