David Walsh, chief sports writer on The Sunday Times, can certainly turn a phrase and tells a tale of humanity and quiet rage in a gripping but never sensational style. He laces the book with large doses of himself not because of an overbearing ego, but because he wants to demonstrate how we all relate to sport, and how it is easy for us to deceive ourselves into believing that what we want to see is the reality. So the book begins with a description of how Walsh came to love the sport of cycling, and of how his friendship with the rider Paul Kimmage, who later turned journalist after writing an exposé of the sports drug culture, began to make him see it in a different light. What’s also established is that Walsh, like many of his colleagues, tried hard at first to convince himself that what seemed increasingly obvious was not really happening.
Walsh wrote the biography of his early cycling hero Sean Kelly, convincing himself that Kelly’s failed dope test was little more than “a minor infraction”. Walsh says starkly, ‘It wasn’t how a proper journalist would have reacted. At the time I knew what I was doing.” It’s important for Walsh to establish the capacity those close to a subject have to shape uncomfortable truths into something more soothing in order for the book to work. Gradually, we see both his scepticism about sport and sports journalism grow, and how difficult it is to swim against the tide, against the story everyone wants to believe.
In 1999 a lot of people wanted to believe. They wanted to believe the Tour de France was clean after the drugs scandals of the past, they wanted to believe that Lance Armstrong had battled back from life-threatening cancer to secure a fairytale victory. Walsh did not believe, and he said so. He continued to say so for 13 years, quietly building the story as he found the answers to the questions he had. Along the way he was vilified by the Armstrong camp, attacked by other journalists and told by one irate Sunday Times reader that he must have “cancer of the spirit”. There were legal threats aplenty too. But Walsh stood firm and, to their credit, so did his editors at The Sunday Times. A “Murdoch rag”, let’s remember, supposedly incapable of proper journalism.
There’s plenty for journalists to think about here, but the focus of the story is always the sport and the enormity of what doping really is. Sir Matthew Pinsent, when presenting Walsh with a Lifetime Achivement Award at the BT Sports Industry Awards, said: “Sport is so enthralling because all things are equal, a level playing field except for human endeavour, skill and desire. Without that level playing field, sport becomes a circus. David Walsh led a fight for the very soul of sport.” That’s true, but beneath the noble cause lies a squalid reality, and Walsh sets this out in detail. He tells how the doping culture corrupts and demoralises and, in one vivid passage, calmly tells of how cyclists using EPO to dope their blood would wear alarms that went off when their pulse rate fell below a certain level as they slept in order to perform the vigorous exercise that would prevent their blood turning to treacle.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough especially, as I said at the start of this review, in these times when journalism is under attack. I must confess I hesitate to make the point, as far too much nonsense has been talked by all sides about the implications of the Leveson report and the proposed press charter. And Walsh makes the point strongly that it was the UK’s libel laws that prevented the telling of the story here for so long. But read the arguments the Armstrong camp used against their accusers, then ask yourself whether Armstrong would have lined up with Hacked Off. The answer is not a very comfortable one.