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The three journalists spoke to Chris Donoghue and Norah Casey in advance of their Dublin show next week. Kimmage and Walsh were two writers who played an integral part in the eventual exposure of Armstrong’s use of performance enhancing drugs, while an article by English led to Armsgrong receiving a massive financial settlement from the Sunday Times - a settlement now being contested in light of this year's revelations.
Walsh, the Chief Sports Writer with the Sunday Times, first met Armstrong twenty years ago and was struck by his “desire to win... I really thought ‘we’re going to hear a lot about this guy.’” However, from 1999 and Armstrong’s Tour de France success (following the athlete’s battle with testicular cancer) Walsh states that he “didn’t believe” in the victories. “I never really looked at this guy and thought he was the greatest athlete in the world... I never thought that.”
For Walsh, even as a young athlete Armstrong showed the characteristics of “a champion who would do anything to win... if anything meant breaking the rules, if it meant crushing people who spoke against him, if it meant encouraging others to dope, he was prepared to do all of that.”
Kimmage, a former cyclist who also encountered Armstrong for the first time in the early 1990s, also admired Armstrong in the early years, but felt the 1999 victory was a turning point. “I know the sport, I know what’s physically possible... it wasn’t possible to be twice the rider you were before cancer without the aid of performance enhancing drugs. It was plain to everybody who knows professional cycling that this guy was cheating.”
Due to the commercial weight of Armstrong’s name and the wide appeal of his story, rather than be the subject of journalistic scrutiny the cyclist was instead “going to be the good news story of 1999 and was going to bring people back to the sport” after a major doping scandal in 1998.
This raised a dilemma for Kimmage, who also was heavily involved with exposing Michelle de Bruin’s use of performance enhancing drugs. “Do you ignore what the educated people, the informed people are saying about this or do you run with the cheerleading?” For Kimmage, making the decision to publish a story about suspected doping can be life-changing and a “lonely” road, but “[doping is] a massive problem” that needs to be exposed.
Alan English is the editor of the Limerick Leader and the moderator of The Whistleblowers. He explained the concept of the show was to bring the other two long-term colleagues together - and hopefully encourage a heated debate or two in the process.
Armstrong had previously received a large settlement of approximately £1 million from the Sunday Times following the publication of an article by Mr. English (ironically he was the only one of the three journalists who hadn’t spent years investigating Armstrong). However, the newspaper is now seeking their own settlement, and ongoing negotiations have thrown up the possibility of an interview between Armstrong and David Walsh.
However, the interview is currently unlikely due to investigations into Armstrong’s actions taking place in the US. While Walsh was promised a personal apology from Armstrong during the athlete’s infamous Oprah Winfrey confession in January, the journalist has heard “he still feels a serious amount of antagonism towards me and I’m sure towards Paul as well... I’m not waiting for the phone to ring and be told to get my ass to Austin to interview Lance Armstrong.”
Kimmage also discussed his response to the Oprah interview:
Speaking about the role of sports journalists, Walsh reflects that stopping his many years of investigations into Armstrong would have been “like handing in my press card... As long as I was a journalist I was going to continue trying to convince people Lance Armstrong was a doper”, a resolve strengthened by Armstrong’s widespread support. While the Sunday Times were largely supportive of his investigative streak, he writes that the £1 million settlement was a disincentive for the paper, especially coming at a time when newspapers were struggling financially. Indeed, Paul Kimmage lost his job at the paper after he kept pressing to investigate Armstrong in the aftermath of the settlement.
Kimmage for his part is unable to forgive Armstrong “because of the damage he did to other people... in a way he cost me my job... but I was down the scale in terms of the damage he did to other people like Emma O’Reilly [the Irish masseur who wrote a book about Armstrong].”
He spoke about Betsy Andreu whose life was also changed as a result of a relationship with Armstrong:
Kimmage expressed disappointment over the current state of newspapers and journalism. “I wish our profession... the media actually got back to telling truth. I think we’d sell more papers, we’d have a lot more respect and that question of ‘do you regret it?’ would never come up.”
Alan English reflected on the ongoing legal challenges against Armstrong: “these are difficult times for newspapers, and when somebody lies through his teeth... and uses the libel laws against a newspaper that’s trying do its job, he should pay a price” For him, sports journalism must seek to expose dishonesty and illegal activity, stating “there are plenty of other sports that need to be questioned.... the one at the moment is tennis. Some people who like cycling resent the fact that such a big torch has been shone on cycling, [but] absolutely the quest [for truth] should go on everywhere.” He concluded with the observation that “the type of sport we want to watch is honest sport”.
The Whistleblowers will take to the stage in the Bord Gais Energy Theatre on Saturday 20th of April. You can listen to the full Newstalk Breakfast interview below: