Extraordinary Proof Transcript

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I first encountered Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France. He was then a 21- year-old, riding the race for the first time. I was a 38-year-old sportswriter, writing his first book on the Tour.

I had this idea that my book would be like a sporting Canterbury Tales. I know - grandiose. I'd always been a dreamer. I was going to interview 13-14 people on this 3 week pilgrimage to Paris. They would tell me their stories. I would write their stories. And in that way, I would tell the story of the Tour de France.

I met Lance at the Château de la Commanderie, a beautiful hotel 10 miles south of Grenoble where he and his teammates were staying. We sat down and we spoke for 3 hours. I liked him, and I think he liked me. I was sure that as a young, 21- year-old from Texas, he had to be overawed by this enormous sporting epic on the old continent. He said, "No," it wasn't like that for him.

I said, "But, come on, you know, you're here to learn, right?" And he said, "No, I'm here to win." Of course he knew that he couldn't win the race. You know, the overall victory. But he felt he could win one leg of it. I thought that was stretching it. Four days later, he did win a leg of that year's Tour de France.

He laid it out for me, who he was. He said he had this desire. It almost felt like a rage. And when he got to the end of the race, he would shake like mad. He'd feel his heartbeat go up to 200 beats a minute, and at that moment he said he often thought about his mother, Linda, who had had him when she was age 17; who'd raised him more or less as a single parent. And he felt she didn't raise a quitter. And no matter what happened, he wasn't going to quit.

And he looked at me, Lance did, and he said, "That's not physical. This isn't good legs, or lungs." He said, "Man, this is heart. It's soul. It's just pure guts."

And I listened to him. And I thought, "Wow, 21 years of age. We're going to hear about this guy."

Two years later, I was coming home from a trip because sportswriters, we travel a lot. One month you're at the Tour de France, the next month it might be the Olympics, the next month it might be something else. This time, I was coming home from the Rugby World Cup. I'd been in South Africa for 4 weeks. Got to the airport in Dublin, was driving home. As I turned into our house, I looked into our front garden and saw lots of our neighbors. I saw some of the schoolteachers that our kids had. We had 6 kids. And I saw the parish priest, and I just knew that something terrible had happened. I knew that once I opened the door of the car and spoke to somebody, my life would change forever.

I opened the door, and someone - I don't remember who - told me that John, our 12-year-old son, our oldest boy, had been killed off his bicycle coming from a Gaelic football match an hour before. You can imagine how shattering, devastating, horrible that was. For all of us, life would go on, but it would be a lesser life without John. We sat down as a family and we thought, "How do we try to deal with this?"

And I was of the view that we would talk about John as much as we could. We would keep his memory fresh. We would try as best we could not to have the subject a hidden, forbidden subject. And I went and spoke to people who had known John, you know, friends, parents of his friends, his rugby coach, his Gaelic football coach, his teachers.

One story stood out. One of John's teachers, at Kindergarten National School in the midlands of Ireland, said to me that she remembered John for something that happened when John was 6 or 7 and she was reading the story of the Nativity. You know, Mary and Joseph had come to Bethlehem and sought a place in the inn, but all the inns were full and they ended up in a stable. And it was there that baby Jesus was born. And the shepherds came, and then the three wise men came and they brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And then Mary and Joseph went back to where they came from and they lived a very modest life because Joseph was just a humble carpenter and they didn't have very much. And John's hand went up. And this is to me, his teacher said, "Yes, John?"

And he said, "Miss, you say that Mary and Joseph didn't have very much. What did they do with the gold that the three wise men brought?"

And she said, "John, I've been reading this story for 33 years and nobody has ever asked me that question. And the honest answer is, I don't know."

And I said, "Mrs. Tumi, that's the most beautiful story." Because for me it's the most pertinent question in journalism, which is my profession, that's it, in a nutshell. What did Mary and Joseph do with the gold? You ask the obvious question. People may laugh at you. People may think you're an idiot but that doesn't deter you. If you're unsure, you ask. And I thought, going on in my journalistic career, I was going to take that with me.

I met Lance Armstrong again at the ’99 Tour de France. This was 6 years after that first interview in Grenoble. We had both changed since that first meeting. I was now a more inquiring journalist, a little bit harder in my approach. Maybe a guy less inclined to believe in fairy tales. Lance, too, had changed. He'd been diagnosed with testicular cancer, stage 3, the ultimate, 4. Doctors said he had a 50 percent chance of surviving. But he came through it, changed. What had happened was that he'd come close to losing his life. And coming back, he decided he wasn't going to get so close to losing again.

That Tour was a famous, maybe now infamous, tour because Lance had ridden this race 4 times. He'd never been a Tour de France rider; his best placing was 36th. He didn't like the big mountains. He couldn't do the time trials - the stuff you have to do to win the Tour de France. Then he gets cancer, life threatening. He spends 2 years out of the sport. He comes back, and he's the dominant rider in the race. He wins everything. Everybody applauds. Because this is the most life affirming story you've ever heard: guy back from cancer, winning the Tour de France.

And I sat, stood, at the side of the road. And I felt emotionally flat. This was a story I just didn't believe. How could it be that a man is transformed into a super champion by a two-year illness?

People said, "But after all he's been through, he would never go and take drugs, would he?"

And I thought, if he's come back to make sure that he achieves what he wanted to achieve, it might very well be the thing he would do. So I watched and watched him very skeptically. Everything I saw convinced me that he was using performance-enhancing drugs, which were pretty widespread in the sport.

I remember on the day he won his first Tour de France, I wrote my first seriously questioning piece in the Sunday Times. There was a sentence that said, "There are times in life when it's right to applaud a champion. There are other occasions when you'd be better advised to keep your arms by your sides. This is an occasion for keeping our arms by our sides, because what we need here is not acclamation of the new champion, but an inquiry."

That story got the most vitriolic, negative reaction to any story I've ever done in 38 years of journalism. Every reader who wrote or emailed disapproved of what I'd written. Kate Miller from Glasgow wrote me a letter that said, "Mr. Walsh, you have the worst cancer of all, cancer of the spirit."

That one got past my exterior walls. I had a problem now, in that basically I had said Lance Armstrong was a fraud. Innuendo, you could say, no real proof. I had to find some proof.

I went looking for witnesses to Lance's doping, who would become my sources. I spent 2 years on the trail. And I ended up with 3 people: Stephen Swart from New Zealand, Emma O'Reilly from Dublin, and Betsy Andreu from Michigan, in the US. All of them had been on the inside at one time: Swart, a former teammate; Emma O'Reilly, a former worker in Lance's team; Betsy Andreu, wife of Lance's former best friend. They all told me he doped. They gave me evidence they had witnessed it, they had got drugs for him, they had heard it.

Betsy Andreu turned out to be the most interesting of all. She and her husband had been great friends of Lance. They'd visited him during his cancer treatment in Indiana University Hospital. While they stood in a room they heard Lance tell his doctor that, yes, he had used performance-enhancing drugs. Betsy knew what she heard. 

I wrote the story and thought what I'd written would be substantial proof, and that it would end for Lance. It didn't work out like that through those early years. Lance said at one time - looked at me at a press conference - and said, "Mr. Walsh, extraordinary accusations must be followed up by extraordinary proof. And you haven't come up with extraordinary proof."

I kind of wondered, why was ordinary proof not enough? But I knew, Lance was an icon to the cancer community. He was a demigod in the sports world. Different rules apply to him. There were sponsors. There were race organizers. There were the sports authorities. There were television broadcasters. There were journalists. And pretty much all of them were looking the other way. This was a story, a life-affirming story, so good that nobody wanted to consider it might be a fraud - even if the evidence was obvious.

I became easily the most unpopular journalist at the Tour de France. I drew comfort from an old line of Marge Simpson's. Yes. She once said, "There's no shame in being the pariah." And honestly, I didn't, I didn't feel ashamed.

Betsy Andreu became my sports editor from hell, really. She would ring me, and she'd say, "Did you see that story in the Seattle Times?"

And I'd say, "What story, Betsy?" She'd say, "The one about Lance!" And I'd say, "No." She said, "Read it and follow it up." We would speak on the phone lots and lots of times. And she was always there, like my inspiration. I never wanted it to be personal. I mean, I understood why Lance Armstrong doped. He felt it was his only way to win, and he wasn't prepared to walk away and he wasn't prepared to lose. I got that. I still felt it was wrong, and that I had every right to question him. And I never wanted it to be personal.

He nicknamed me, "The Little Fucking Troll," and it became really popular with all the journalists to refer to me as that. And he called Betsy, “The Crazy Bitch.” And Betsy and I, we used to laugh about this. And when I emailed or I'd say, "Hi, Crazy Bitch, how are you today?"

And she'd say, "I'm good, Little Fucking Troll, how are you?"

Only once did Lance get under my skin. I was in a bookstore, and I was leafing through the latest Lance book, Armstrong's War by Daniel Coyle. You know, you go to the index, look for your name, see the pages, and I start reading this section where Lance Armstrong is discussing in very derogatory terms my relationship with our son John, who was killed. He had heard that I had described John as a favorite son. And he said, "How can he describe him as a favorite son? That's sick." 

And he said other things. I knew Daniel Coyle, and I got out of that shop, and I called Daniel. And I said, "How could you have written that in the book?" And he said, "If you're that upset..." But I said, "I am this upset!" He said "I, I shouldn't have written it." And he said, "All I can say to you is that Lance said a lot of things about your relationship with John. And I didn't put in the worst."

And that didn't make me feel a lot better.
I went away, and time passed. And I thought, you know what, I'm glad Daniel Coyle put that piece in his book because it's there now, between two covers. And what it does is that it shines a pretty bright light on the darker side of Lance Armstrong.

In the end, the feds got involved. Well, the feds in the US, they're not like journalists. They deal in things like subpoenas and affidavits. And you can't sue them. And the feds say to you, "If you lie to us, it's perjury. And if you commit perjury, we'll make sure you go to prison." That's why Marion Jones ended up in prison. She perjured herself with those guys.

They had 26 witnesses, all of whom said Lance Armstrong was a cheat. Eleven of them were former teammates. Lance Armstrong had said, "You must have extraordinary proof if you're going to bring me down."

This was extraordinary proof.

It all ended for Lance officially on October 22nd, 2012. I was driving on the M-25 around London. I knew there was a press conference in Switzerland, and I decided that I had to hear it. And I called into a Starbucks cafe in one of the services off the M-25, plugged my computer into the Internet, got the press conference.

Lance was stripped of his 7 titles, given a lifetime ban from cycling and they were saying he deserved to be forgotten. I felt strangely flat, anticlimactic almost. And I rang Betsy Andreu, and I said, "Betsy, how are you feeling? You've, you've seen the press conference?"

"Yeah, I have," she said, "I just feel anticlimactic about it now."

And maybe what we both didn't realize at that time was that the hunt in life is always better than the kill. I said to Betsy, "You know, today is John's birthday, October 22nd. He would have been 30 today."

And Betsy said, "Maybe this is his little birthday gift to you, on his birthday." And I thought, "Betsy, that's a nice thought." Afterwards, in the days and weeks and years that followed, people said, "You must feel vindicated about the way this turned out." 

And I said, "No, I don't feel any sense of vindication." Because I'd known from the very first that I was on the side of truth. And even in the darkest moments, that was enough.

Thank you very much.