Man at His Best

The Journalist Who Brought Down Lance Armstrong

David Walsh's investigation is the basis of The Program, a new biopic from Stephen Frears.

BY MATT MILLER | Mar 19, 2016 | Fitness & Health

When journalist David Walsh met Lance Armstrong during his first Tour de France in 1993, he was charmed by the young cyclist. "He was 21. I was 38, and I really liked him," Walsh says. "I walked away thinking I had met a guy who was really going to leave his mark on this sport." 

Walsh was right. Over the next decade, Armstrong beat cancer, won seven Tour de France titles, and became the most celebrated cyclist of all time. He rose to the status of international celebrity, advocating for his own charity and the sport as a whole. 

But he was cheating the whole time. And Walsh knew. 

As the world celebrated a hero, Walsh was convinced that Armstrong was one of the many cyclists taking performance-enhancing drugs. The cycling community and his fellow journalists wanted a champion. Fans wanted a role model. Walsh wanted the truth. 

Armstrong's decade-long cover-up and Walsh's investigation into one of sport's biggest cheaters is the basis for director Stephen Frears' film The Program. Actor Ben Foster plays the cyclist with chilling accuracy. The actor trained to be a professional cyclist, dedicating himself to the sport—even admitting to taking Armstrong's performance enhancing drugs to complete the character. "Actors do what they have to do to give the performance," Frears, who had no idea Foster was on the drugs, says. "He thought it was necessary. He was very, very good in the film and I had no complaints." 

Complete with sweeping scenes of past Tour de France races (a mix of CGI, recreations, and found footage, Frears says), Foster's Armstrong and Walsh (played by Chris O'Dowd) square off over the integrity of cycling. Ahead of The Program's wide release on March 18, we spoke with the real Walsh about how he brought down cycling's greatest cheater.

What was the first time you suspected Armstrong of cheating? 
Six years lapsed from our first meeting to the time I suspected Lance was cheating. He'd had a pretty good career. He won the world championships. I always said that he had tremendous potential as a one-day racer. I never saw him as a Tour de France rider in his kind of shape, given his attributes. Then he gets cancer, and everyone in the sport is feeling sad for him and hoping he pulls through. Then he comes back to the Tour de France in 1999 to a different sport. In '98 we had all this drug scandal, so journalists like me were thinking we were screwed over covering when this bike race. We thought we were covering heroes, but it turns out they were cheats. Any journalist worth his salt was going to have a more skeptical view. 

When I turn up in '99 I'm thinking, Let's make sure we properly investigate. So, Lance wins by a mile, the best performance he's done in his life. He's the best you've ever seen. From the very start I felt something was wrong. The starting point of the suspicion was just watching his answers to questions. It wasn't just that he was defensive; he was almost aggressively defensive. Lance had this almost patronising bit, where he said, You need to fall back in love with cycling. And I'm listening to this and I say, "Lance, what about all the doping, has it all disappeared?"

So you think he could be up to something. What's your first move?
I had complete and utter conviction. On that Sunday, I advised readers in the Sunday Times not to applaud Lance's victory. Because what we need here is not acclimation to a new champion, but an inquiry. And of course I was vilified for that. So what I had to do was go out and get evidence. Real evidence. I got firsthand accounts of Lance's doping. How could people accept that? People wanted the story to be true so badly that they were prepared to embrace the irresponsibility of not knowing. 

What was your personal interaction with Lance out of the public eye? And how intimidating was it to take on this story about a hero who was untouchable?
I didn't find it intimidating at all. Lance was trying to intimidate me. When Lance stared at me in the press conferences, I stared back as if saying, I'm prepared to do this as long as you are. I smiled to myself afterward because he was the one who averted his gaze. I was never going to be frightened of this story.

It took awhile, but you were justified in the end.
To me it worked out all the way through. Because I felt I was doing the right thing. That was good enough for me regardless of what the public thought. I was behaving how a journalist should.

Have you had any interaction with him post-2012?
No. None. I didn't expect to and I haven't been disappointed.

Do you have any sympathy for him?
I think he did a lot of good work in relation to his foundation. No question. It was also a shield that protected him from scrutiny. Do I have sympathy for him? I do. He told a lie, and when he first told it it was just "I don't dope." Many sportsmen have told that lie. As his fame grew, because of his cancer survival, the lie grew, and it became a monster. That lie imprisoned him. He had to go on telling it. In a sense, the lie controlled him. His decisions were the wrong decisions. And they came back to haunt him.