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Journalist who uncovered Armstrong doping: 'Ask the obvious question'

Students with David Walsh, the journalist who exposed Lance Armstrong's doping
October 10, 2013

The journalist who chased Lance Armstrong on doping allegations for 13 years and uncovered pro-cycling's greatest conspiracy said he never once wished he had been wrong. 

"What I did was too big a thing to do to be wrong," said David Walsh, the chief sportswriter for the British newspaper The Sunday Times. "I would have wanted to give up journalism. There is zero doubt that this guy is cheating. The remarkable thing was, how could so many people believe?"

Walsh discussed his book "Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong" for the first time in the United States on Oct. 8, for the Jonathan and Maxine Marshall Distinguished Lecture Series and also for a special student session hosted by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

"[Armstrong] is a man who had come back from life-threatening cancer to win one of the toughest athletic challenges that the world has, and here I am saying this is not believable," Walsh said. "I stated that; I put myself on the outside. I made myself very unpopular. I felt a pretty big responsibility to go and back it up." 

In 2001, Walsh opened a door that would lead to the truth about Armstrong and doping in pro-cycling. After a two-year investigation, he revealed in the Sunday Times that Armstrong was tied to the notorious Italian doctor Michele Ferarri, who was sentenced to prison for sporting fraud for providing athletes with performance-enhancing drugs.

Walsh was the only journalist to vehemently pursue the serious allegations of the cancer survivor's cheating, and he followed it up with more evidence in his books, "L.A. Confidentiel" and "From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France."

The "Little Troll," a nickname Armstrong used for Walsh, said he felt a "strange sense of anticlimax" when the International Cycling Union, the international governing body for cycling, announced that "Armstrong has no place in cycling" and that "Armstrong needs to be forgotten in cycling now." It was the same day Walsh's 12-year-old son had been killed while riding his bike 18 years ago.

As a child, Walsh's son John had always amused him by asking obvious questions, Walsh said. He said when he had an inkling in 1999 that Armstrong might be doping, he decided he would ask the obvious questions too, and he started with the 1999 Tour de France.

The race was nicknamed the "Tour de Farce" because cyclists said the entire tour felt like a descent, where riders were racing unbelievably fast, Walsh said, and it was virtually impossible to be in the top 10 without doping. But when Walsh questioned Armstrong and reported the evidence he had found, other reporters, readers and fans were upset that he unveiled Armstrong was cheating.

"I think they didn't want proof," Walsh said. "I think journalism generally failed in the case of Lance Armstrong. I would be writing stories that were pretty convincing that would make you question him, and then I would pick up Sports Illustrated and he was sportsman of the year again."

After Armstrong's defiance, bullying and threatening, and when he finally came clean in an interview with Oprah Winfrey last year, he reluctantly said he would apologize to Walsh. "I thought that wasn't the first time Lance Armstrong lied, and it won't be the last," Walsh said. "He never called me."

Constantin Schreiber, a member of the ASU Cycling club and a doctoral student in education policy, attended the discussion and said he doesn't have much respect left for Armstrong.

"[Armstrong] doped in an organized way that probably no other individual or team did," Schreiber said. "He bullied and intimidated people as he saw fit, which I think is what makes his case so bad. He was obsessed with winning, with fame, with power. He lied, all the time, about doping, without even blinking."

Despite the 13-year battle and the ingrained epidemic of cheating in pro-cycling, Walsh said he has high hopes for the sport. 

Walsh traveled with Team Sky in the Tour de France and believes 2012 winner Bradley Wiggins did it without drugs. "The head of Team Sky asked me, 'do you believe we won that tour clean?'" Walsh said. "I'm not sure, but my gut feeling is that Bradley Wiggins won it clean." 

Walsh also said cycling doesn't end with Armstrong. "I believe there are lots of teams not doping now," Walsh said. "If cycling cleaned its act up, it could be a much bigger sport than it actually is."

Although Schreiber said he wants to believe Walsh that Wiggins and his teammate and 2013 Tour de France winner Chris Froome didn't dope, he said he is skeptical and isn't as optimistic about cycling trends in the United States. 

"There is no question that many people are on bikes today because of Lance Armstrong's success," Schreiber said. "The Armstrong doping case has first and foremost had a negative influence on cycling in the U.S. At the amateur level, we will have to see."

Carolyn Corcoran, a freshman journalism student, said she wanted to hear what he had to say about the failure of sports journalists to uncover the truth. "He perfectly embodies a commitment to truth and fair judgment, and as a journalism student, I know that these both are characteristics young journalists aspire and yearn for," Corcoran said. 

Walsh had advice for aspiring journalists: "Ask the obvious question and don't be deterred from asking it, and if you feel everyone in the press room is looking at you funny, regard that as a tribute," he said.

Written by Sarah Muench, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences