Sunday Times journalist David Walsh last night hit back at cyclist Lance Armstrong’s claim in a magazine interview that "David and I are similar”.
Walsh was giving the Daily Mirror-sponsored Cudlipp lecture at the London College of Communications looking back over a 13-year investigation into Armstrong which culminated in the cyclist being found guilty of doping and stripped of his seven Tour De France victories.
He began his talk by responding to comments made by Armstrong during an interview with Cycling News in November.
Armstrong said in the inteview: “David and I are similar. I was a win at all costs kind of guy. David is a win at all costs kind of guy. Even if it means embellishing, tweaking. Was he right that I was doping in those years? Absolutely and hats off to him, but there were times he would have done anything to do that story. But I understand that, I was the same way.”
Responding Walsh said: “What he chose to forget was that I wasn’t lying to my editors, I wasn’t telling them stuff I knew to be untrue…basically I didn’t cheat.
“For Lance to think that we were really just two peas in a pod, I’m not buying that.
“He felt that we were fixated on him. That he was Moby Dick and I was Captain Ahab.
“There was element of truth in that for sure. He was different because he was a superstar in his sport. A hero to millions of people. There was a cancer community that looked to Lance as a totally inspiring story.
"He knew what they saw in him and he knew he was a fraud. I knew he was a fraud.
“The scale of that lie was on a different level to anything I’ve seen in sport and to most things I’ve seen in life.
“If I became a little bit fixated and a little bit determined to make sure people understood the truth about this guy I don’t apologise for that.”
Walsh (pictured above at the 2012 British Journalism Awards) raised questions about the credibility of Armstrong following the cyclist's first Tour de France victory in 1999, after his recovery from cancer.
He explained how he then went about standing the story up by getting Armstrong’s former masseur Emma O’Reilly and other sources on the record with a series of extensive interviews.
In 2004 he co-authored LA Confidential which detailed Armstrong’s history of doping. An extract from this appeared in The Sunday Times prompting Armstrong to sue and win a £1m libel settlement in 2006.
The cyclist was finally exposed by the US anti-doping authority in 2012 and admitted in an Oprah Winfrey interview in Janauary last year that he had doped during every one of his Tour de France wins.
In the interview, Armstrong was asked: “Do you owe David Walsh an apology, who for 13 years has pursued this story, who wrote for The Sunday Times, who has now written books about your story and about this entire process?”
Armstrong replied: “I’d apologise to David.”
Walsh said last night: “Has he apologised? No. Do I expect him to apologise? No. Do I want one? No."
Over the long period Walsh was investigating Armstrong the cyclist called him “a little troll” and “the worst journalist I know” – while categorically denying that he had ever doped.
Walsh revealed how he first interviewed Armstrong in 1993 for a book, when he was 21: “I liked him and saw him making a big mark on the sport."
In 1996 Armstrong contracted stage three testicular cancer, and was given a 50/50 chance of survival but in 1999 he came back and won the Tour.
Walsh said: “For every news editor, sports editor, TV broadcaster – this was the most life-affirming story they’d heard in years.”
He recalled ringing his sports editor at The Sunday Times, Alex Butler, and saying: “I don’t believe he’s clean”
He said Butler replied: “If that’s what you believe then you’ve got to write it and let me worry about the lawyers."
Walsh: "I said to readers: A Texan is going to ride down the Champs Elysees this afternoon…there are times in this sport when you have to stand back and put your arms by your sides and not applaud.
“The reaction was easily the most vicious and vitriolic reaction that I’ve had to any story." Walsh recounted how he was stung by a letter from one reader in Glasgow who said: "You have the worst cancer of all, cancer of the spirit.”
Talking about Armstrong’s libel action over the 2004 Sunday Times story, Walsh recalled how Armstrong's lawyer Keith Schilling approached key witness Emma O’Reilly at her home.
“He said I’m amazed paparazzi aren’t outside your home.”
He said: “LA confidential was given to every British publisher. Every one got a letter from Schillings, touch this and your dead. So no-one touched it.”
Talking about the lessons for journalists from the Armstrong story, Walsh said: “A good story is always worth pursuing no matter how difficult pursuing it might be.
“When I was the bad guy, I was the guy with cancer of the spirit, I used to say to people I’m not the one here who’s cynical. I’m a romantic, I believe that one day we can have a Tour de France we can believe in, where the winner is the best athlete." He said the cynics were the journalists who celebrated the sport even though they knew riders were doping.
Condmening a legal system which meant that LA Confidential could be published in France, Belgium and the USA but not the UK, he said: "Our libel laws are seriously deficient. It was wrong the way the Sunday Times got screwed and the way these judges had zero interest in the truth and zero interest in saying ‘if somebody cheats they deserve to be exposed’."
Asked by Press Gazette whether he thought sports journalists today do enough to investigate possible wrongdoing in sports like football and Formula One he said: “No they definitely don’t."