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Monday, December 17, 2012

Blessed are the Great

Greatness never wavers when it's time to do the right thing. Greatness doesn't buy into half-truths taking it upon itself to dig deep and ensure that every angle is blown away and exposed. Greatness takes the unbeaten path, remembering that those who dance to music unheard by those who can't hear the music are often thought to be mad. Greatness never settles for easy answers; and is driven by higher ideals than mere materialism. Greatness can grate the nerves of the less understanding as people tend to prejudge what they do not know. Greatness prevails in the face of despair and doubt. Greatness has no fears or inhibitions.

Stand up, David Walsh, Chief Sports Writer of the Sunday Times. Walsh, an Irishman with a passion for cycling and a fixed presence on the Tour de France beat, was one of Lance Armstrong’s most vociferous critics who fought for years for the truth. Walsh first discovered Armstrong as a 21 year old cyclist who was tipped for greatness in the early 90’s. Walsh was a fan and had the pleasure of interviewing him. In 1999, when Armstrong was on the verge of winning his first Tour de France riding on a wave of adulation and plaudits as a result of his recovery from Cancer, Walsh was skeptical. At the time, Cycling was heavily tainted with doping. It was felt that the 1999 race which had been dubbed the ‘Tour of Restoration’ would have one of the slowest times as normalcy was returned. To Walsh and most of the French media’s surprise, Armstrong was defying expectations. 

At the time, Walsh wrote “For too long sports writing has been unrestrained cheerleading, suspending legitimate doubts and settling for stories of sporting heroism”.  Walsh passes the impression of a man who wanted to be taken in by the Armstrong fairy tale but was still smarting from the 1998 Tour and the havoc wreaked by the Festina doping scandal. In 2001, he was granted an interview with Armstrong which he describes as leaving Armstrong particularly perturbed and angered. Walsh’s gut feeling was strengthened when it came to his attention that Armstrong had links with Michele Ferrari, an Italian trainer who was believed to have aided the doping industry. In 2004, Walsh alongside his French counterpart, Pierre Ballester published their book ‘L.A Confidentiel: Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong’ in which they detailed circumstantial evidence gathered from 52 people with ties with Armstrong to suggest there was more to Armstrong than the public was being made to believe.  The book also touched on Armstrong’s failed drugs test in 1999 where he tested positive for the substance corticosteroid triamcinolone. His defence was that he had used a corticoidal cream as a result of being saddle sore. However, this was questioned and doubted as it had not been detailed on his doping form as was required. Two days before the 2004 Tour took off Armstrong said at a press conference in reference to the book “I’ll say one thing about the book especially since our esteemed author is here. In my view, I think extraordinary accusations must be followed up with extraordinary proof and Mr Walsh and Mr Ballester have worked four, five years and they have not come up with extraordinary proof.  The case is now incredibly complicated and would be a long one. I have engaged lawyers in both France and England. I would spend whatever it takes, however long it takes to bring justice to the case”. (The ‘case’ in question was Armstrong’s suit claiming defamation against the authors and the Sunday Times, Walsh’s employers who had referenced the book.) 

The foreword of ‘Lanced: The Shaming of Lance Armstrong’, an e book by Walsh and other members of staff of the Sunday Times alludes to Armstrong’s victory saying “The combination of Armstrong’s hold over the sport of cycling and Britain’s libel laws was to prove costly for The Sunday Times. The newspaper was sued for libel by Armstrong after we published a report (reprinted here with the headline 'LA confidential') about a new book by Walsh and a French journalist. The case was eventually settled for a six figure sum, although The Sunday Times is now taking steps to recover the money spent in damages and legal fees.” David Walsh suffered for following what he believed was the truth. In the e book, he speaks of a letter he received from a newspaper reader. It said “Sometimes we refuse to believe for whatever reason; Sometimes people get a cancer of the spirit. And maybe that says a lot about them”. Stinging words! On the journalism circuit, he also saw some old friendships collapse as they did not want to be seen with him so as to stay in Armstrong’s good books. Walsh never faltered or let that derail him, sticking to his beliefs and working on bringing them to fruition. In an interview with the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, Armstrong said Walsh is the worst journalist I know. There are journalists who are willing to lie, to threaten people and to steal in order to catch me out. All this for a sensational story! Ethics, standards, values, accuracy — these are of no interest to people like Walsh.” Only if that were true. 

Stand up, Cristophe Bassons. In 1999, as Armstrong rode to world domination, Bassons, a fellow rider and opponent, spoke out against doping in the sport. He argued that contrary to the illusion of a cleaner sport being peddled that doping was still rampant and that it would be impossible for a drug free rider to finish within the top six of the tour. What did he get in return? Ridicule, humiliation and cheap taunts. He was victimized by his fellow riders who chased after him with passion and hatred every time he tried to break away. His teammates asked him not to go on record with his feelings anymore as they were suffering for it.  The Cycling community sneered at him, earning the nickname ‘Monsieur Propre’ (Mr. Proper) for his stance. Chief among the bullies was a certain Lance Armstrong. Bassons who would eventually quit cycling for the noble profession of Teaching recalls an encounter with Armstrong “He spoke to me in English, but I understood.” “That’s enough. You are bad for cycling. It would be better if you went home. Give up the sport. You are a small rider, you know. F*** you.”
"Give up and go home"
Stand up, Betsy Andreu. Wife to Armstrong’s teammate and close friend, Frankie, she went on record as stating that whilst visiting Armstrong when he was down with testicular cancer, she overheard him admit that he had doped in the past to a Doctor. Whilst watching the 1999 tour, she details her experience watching from her home in America "It was the first mountain stage, the one to Sestriere, and as they began the climb Frankie was at the front of a line of Postal riders. Frankie is about as much a climber as the Pope is an atheist. 'What the hell is this about,' I said." She called her husband and said she didn't believe he was clean any more. He was too wasted to argue.” She saw her husband revered for his work in helping set the pace for Armstrong’s victory and despised it. After admitting to her that he had doped to help Armstrong and their team, Betsy told her then fiancĂ© that he could not have both her and the drugs and left him to make a decision. He chose her and by the next year, he had been dropped from the team. Betsy played the role of whistle blower by supplying Walsh with all this information in his bid to uncover the truth. After discovering this, Armstrong proceeded on a smear campaign like he had done with others before portraying her as being ‘vindictive’, ‘bitter’, ‘jealous’, ‘ugly’ ‘obese’ ‘hateful’ ‘homely’ and a ‘crazed bitch’ .  
"Crazed bitch?"

Stand up, Emma O’Reilly. O’Reilly had been a physical therapist and masseuse to Armstrong around the turn of the millennium. She was present when Armstrong failed the medical test and witnessed how a cover up was constructed.  The plan involved creating a backdated exemption for the banned substance.  During the period, she gave him massages on a daily basis and recalls disposing some used syringes and providing him make up which he used to disguise the syringe marks on his arm. She has also been vociferous about making what she believes was a drug run for him by driving from France to Spain to pick up what she believes was a banned substance from a team doctor and then handing it over to Armstrong outside a McDonald’s in the south of France. She told her story to Walsh who added it to his fast growing body of work. Like the others, she was the subject of Armstrong’s vitriol with him questioning her credibility as a therapist and insinuating she was an ‘alcoholic’ and ‘prostitute’.  

No matter falsehood’s elusive moves truth would always prevail. It’s like an ink stain on a crisp, white shirt: near impossible to hide and even the most minute of stains would be visible to the working eye. David Walsh’ struggle of the last decade has been vindicated. He would be remembered for his journalistic tenacity in the vein of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who achieved worldwide acclaim for breaking the Watergate scandal. At journalism schools, he will be held up as a model who asked the questions that needed to be answered; who refused to be bought over easily and lay the foundations for the discovery of the truth. As a Christian, I admire David Walsh for the strength of his conviction. In the face of persecution and criticism albeit not on the level Jesus suffered, he was steadfast and his day of glory came when Lance Armstrong was deposed. Walsh’s story would lack depth without the likes of Bassons, Andreu and O’Reilly.  They had the courage to speak up and challenge the status quo.  They found themselves taking on the Goliath figure that is Armstrong and have come out victorious. The insults and ridicule they took was worth it. Blessed are the great, for they shall inherit the earth.   

Lance, the lies and me - David Walsh 
Betsy Andreu- Daily Mail interview 
Emma O'Reilly- Telegraph interview 
Lanced- The Shaming of Lance Armstrong 
Seven Deadly Sins- My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh  


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