Book Review: Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong
by David Walsh
Published by Simon and Schuster
Hardback RRP: 18.99
Review by Freddie Shires
The story of Lance Armstrong - the cyclist who recovered from testicular cancer and went on to win a record seven Tour de France titles, the man who wrote a bestselling and inspirational account of his life, the charitable benefactor - seemed almost too good to be true. And it was.
“He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy.”
Released just two months after USADA’s ‘reasoned decision’ document exposed Lance Armstrong as the ringleader of “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping program that sport has ever seen”, David Walsh’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ recounts his long and challenging pursuit to uncover the truth behind arguably the biggest fraud in the history of sport.
Over the course of a 13-year span, Walsh recounts how he went about uncovering vital evidence of Armstrong’s doping crimes, all the while having to work under immense scrutiny from the likes of the public, colleagues, those within the sport and of course Armstrong himself.
Though many may now already be familiar with the details of how the ex-seven time Tour de France champion went about cheating the system, it is still fascinating to read how Walsh built his case against Armstrong and how figures such as Paul Kimmage, Betsy Andreu, Greg LeMond, Pierre Ballester and Emma O’Reilly, all whom receive a great deal of praise for their bravery and perseverance in the face of immense pressure, were so vital in this process.
One detail which clearly stands out is quite how powerful and manipulative Armstrong could be, as well as how dangerous it was for anyone such as Walsh to even question his integrity at the time. Undoubtedly, that is what makes Walsh’s efforts so admirable; that he, unlike many others, was not afraid to challenge the most imposing man in the sport and refused to buy into the myth, even while being labeled a “f***ing little troll” and “the worst journalist in the world”.
At times, even Walsh himself would question whether he had become too obsessed and his temporary resignation from the Sunday Times, born out of frustration at Britain’s stringent libel laws, is testament to the enormous pressure and various obstacles he faced whilst trying to expose the truth. As he notes of the legal system: “It was like trying to follow the logic of Alice in Wonderland. He looked like a duck, walked like a duck, sounded like a duck but until the laboratory actually came out and said that he was a duck, we weren’t supposed to even ask a question about His Duckness.”
As a result, Walsh would receive his fair share of subpoenas, not least in the wake of the publication of ‘L. A. Confidentiel’ in 2004, a book which contained many of the incidents and allegations which would later form the basis of USADA’s report, though through it all he refused to back down. In his words: “sometimes fairytales in sport can just be fairytales.”
The development of Walsh’s journalistic values is another key theme and something which is central to the early stages of the book, before the Armstrong narrative really enters the fray. Walsh begins his career admittedly as a “fan with a typewriter”, still idolising the likes of Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche. However, soon he is forced to come to terms with the murky side of sport and the issue of doping leads him away from accepting the “fairytale” side of things and towards asking the hard questions of athletes. The cold, hard truth behind otherwise inspirational events such as Claudio Chiappucci’s 1992 Tour stage victory and Irish swimmer Michelle Smith’s success at the Atlanta Olympic Games are two of the notable examples Walsh uses to highlight why, as a journalist, he must adhere to this mindset and furthermore why the likes of Kelly, Roche and any other rider before or after them shouldn’t be separated from this doping culture, no matter what the context. The focus of Seven Deadly Sins may well be the pursuit of Armstrong but, from this standpoint, there are also a great deal of lessons to be learned about journalistic integrity, investigative skills and the obligation to always pose those questions which need to be asked.
The book also takes on a highly personal feel when Walsh writes about the death of 12-year-old son, John, who, like his father, had a penchant for asking those obvious but sometimes difficult questions. To illustrate Walsh recounts a number of treasured allegories, the most notable being when John’s teacher, whilst reading the nativity story, described how Joseph and Mary lived a “modest life”, to which Walsh’s son replied: “If they were so poor, what did they do with the gold they were given by the three wise men?”
Heartbreaking though it is, little snippets such as this are what gives the book an added dimension and lead it read in places much more like a personal journey rather than a rapid hunt for justice.
Of course, Seven Deadly Sins is not without its faults. Likely due to its hasty release, much of the latter half of the book does feel quite rushed and details which you would have assumed would be afforded much more attention do appear to have been somewhat glossed over. The chapter on Armstrong’s demise in particular feels somewhat at odds with the rest of the book, although the final two dozen pages, where Walsh has others close to the case, such as Kathy LeMond, Paul Kimmage, Charles Pelkey and Jonathan Vaughters to name but a few, share their thoughts felt like a highly fitting way to end. Furthermore, Walsh’s description of the curious character that is Floyd Landis, as well as the story which involves him seeking out an internet café whilst camping in the Himalayas, is a particular highlight towards the later stages of the Armstrong saga.
Ultimately, Seven Deadly Sins is a fascinating account of Walsh’s pursuit of Armstrong, whilst also offering an absorbing insight into the attitude towards doping in sport and journalistic practice and integrity. Walsh’s persistence and refusal to give into the bullying tactics of the Texan were clearly vital towards accelerating the process of his downfall, though, as he happily admits, he would not have been able to uncover such revelations were it not for the help of those figures previously mentioned, as well as Armstrong’s clear character flaws and the eventual unsolicited assistance of Floyd Landis. Nevertheless, Walsh was clearly one of, if not the leading force behind the quest for the truth and, though he himself says in the book he does not like to use the term, he should indeed feel vindicated.
He likely didn’t envisage his career taking this path back when he sat down to interview Armstrong for the first time at the 1993 Tour de France, when the then Motorola rider was still a young, largely unheralded prospect, but cycling fans should certainly be grateful now that Walsh chose to dedicate such a significant portion of his career to bringing the truth to light.
This article was originally published on sportsgazette.co.uk
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