“That’s a great theme of the Armstrong story, how Lance himself became prisoner of his own lie” – David Walsh talks to RCUK

Lance Armstrong's nemesis and author of the Seven Deadly Sins talks to us about the Texan, forgiveness and why Floyd Landis is the best character in the new film

“At the premiere Chris O’Dowd was on stage and somebody asked him about the collaboration he and I had when he was preparing for the part” recalls David Walsh, talking about the premiere of The Program, the film based on his pursuit of Lance Armstrong. “And Chris said ‘well, I had a very long conversation with David… Of course, that’s the only kind of conversation you can have with David on the subject’” he chuckles. “I think that’s fair enough, it’s a valid criticism. I do tend to go on.”

And it’s hardly surprising that Walsh is happy to talk at length on the subject, as the last few years have been a strange transition for him. Back in the early 2000s the Sunday Times journalist was telling anyone who’d listen – and plenty who wouldn’t – about Lance Armstrong and doping. Fast forward to now and it’s totally different. Everyone wants to talk to him about it, and the subject that was once taboo is now big business displayed best by the fact that there’s now a whole movie telling the story.

And that movie, of course, is the reason for our conversation. If Armstrong’s 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey brought the Texan’s transgressions to a wider-than-cycling audience, The Program could well take it to new heights, with immortalisation in film solidifying it as one of those stranger-than-fiction sports stories. Walsh, to his credit, remains pretty phlegmatic about his role in the story and is quick to praise others who could easily have taken the spotlight had circumstances been different. “It is flattering,” he admits, “because a lot of journalists did terrific work in relation to Lance Armstrong, and I’m the guy that’s lucky enough to have this made about him. Could somebody have made a film about Damian Ressiot’s brilliant investigation into Lance in 2005? Yes. About Pierre Ballister? Yes, they could. So, you know, I feel a bit fortunate.”

IT Crowd and Bridesmaids star Chris O’Dowd plays David Walsh in the film, and Walsh himself was thoroughly impressed with the performance of his fellow Irishman

The man chosen to play Walsh was Chris O’Dowd, star of the IT Crowd and, more recently, Bridesmaids, and Walsh admits he did have his doubts about the casting initially. “I knew Chris was high profile – Hollywood apparently loves him after his performance as Officer Rhodes in Bridesmaids – but that’s a very different movie to what this was going to be! I wondered how he would do as a journalist on an almost obsessive pursuit of one of the most loved sportsmen in the history of sport.”

“A colleague said to me ‘if you feel that Armstrong is a complete fraud, why don’t you just stay away from the Tour?’ and I said, ‘because if I stayed away, a guy like you would be sent and wouldn’t ask any questions, and that’s what keeps me going.”

Fortunately, any doubts Walsh had were quickly dispelled when he saw his fellow Irishman in action, and he was seriously impressed. “When I first watched the movie I was convinced by him from that scene in the restaurant on the day of the Sestrière stage [of the 1999 Tour].  He’s sitting there with Charles Pelky and Jonathan Wilcockson, and Wilcockson asks him “why are you so obsessed with this?”

“When Chris replies ‘Why are you not obsessed with this?’ I thought yes, it’s like he’s been a fly on the wall at that time. I had lots of conversations like that, and it wasn’t just with cycling journalists. I remember have an argument at the European Football Championships in 2000 with a fellow journalist from the Sunday Times and I was getting incredibly aggressive because they just couldn’t see what the point was. A colleague said to me at the time ‘if you feel that Armstrong is a complete fraud, why don’t you just stay away from the Tour?’ and I said, ‘because if I stayed away, a guy like you would be sent and wouldn’t ask any questions, and that’s what keeps me going.’”

The Program covers the entirety of Armstrong’s career, from the early ‘90s at Motorola, through the cancer diagnosis and recovery, all the way onto Oprah’s couch in 2013. Cutting down the sheer quantity of potential material on the subject into the length of a feature film can’t have been an easy task. Inevitably, everyone will have their own opinion on what is and isn’t in the film (ours is here, if you’re interested), and Walsh is no different. “Everybody will come away with their own view, and they’re entitled to that view”, he says. “My own view is that Chris O’Dowd did a really good job. But because it’s me, I tried to forget about that and look at the movie from other angles.”

“What else did I like? I absolutely loved Jesse Plemons as Floyd Landis. I thought he was totally brilliant. I think Ben Foster is really good and parts are eerily similar to Armstrong, but in an overall sense, if you put a gun to my head and asked me which performance was best in the film, I have no doubt that it’s Jesse Plemons.”

“I kind of can’t see Floyd now without seeing Jesse, you know? That bit where he’s talking to his people in Farmersville, Pennsylvania and says the line ‘I will prove to you that you’re hearing a good, honest boy in Farmersville’ or whatever the sentence is – wow!”

While Jesse Plemons has quite rightly been gathering plaudits for his role as Floyd Landis, there are those who think the film has been too kind to the man who was stripped of the 2006 Tour de France

Not everybody has been complementary of the way the movie portrays Landis, though – irrespective of the brilliant performance by Plemons – and Walsh concedes that even he has slight reservations. “I spoke with Damian Ressiot’s wife. She’d seen the film and she thought it was much too soft on Floyd, and I think that’s a fair point. Because the film shows him conflicted all the way through, from his upbringing and the life there, and I’m not sure that was apparent [at the time].

“I think that’s a great theme of the Armstrong story, how Lance himself became prisoner of his own lie”

“But that’s what a movie does, it’s brings what’s inside someone’s head out and puts it on show. The camera doesn’t like internal stuff, because it can’t show it, so you get the internal stuff shown as you did with Lance. That scene where the woman comes to get her book signed, I think that’s incredibly powerful, and the reason it’s so powerful is because of Lance’s discomfort. He realises at that moment that he’s a fraud, this woman has been duped into believing in him, the saviour, and he’s just so uncomfortable.

“I think that’s brilliant because Lance must have had those moments, moments where he’s thinking ‘fuck, what am I doing?’ It’s like a guy who tells a lie, and that lie brings him riches and success and fame, but ultimately the lie imprisons him and he can never escape it. And I think that’s a great theme of the Armstrong story, how Lance himself became prisoner of his own lie.”

Landis was presented with the yellow jersey in Paris in 2006, but stripped of it days later after testing positive for testosterone. The American contested the decision for years, before finally confessing.

One of the things that becomes apparent in conversation with Walsh is how certain portrayals in the film re-open areas of the story for discussion. The conversation naturally flits from film to reality and back again seamlessly, and one particularly engaging point is the stark and interesting contrast between how Armstrong and Landis dealt with the accusations and fallout that came with doping. We put it to Walsh that the trouble with Landis is that he just didn’t buy into the lie in the same way Armstrong did, and Walsh agrees that lying was a fundamental difference between the two.

“I’m thrilled that the film showed Floyd at the press conference in Spain [where he answered “I’m going to say no” when asked if he ever doped]. In the history of lies, that was about the most unconvincing lie ever heard. I think it was John Korioth, Lance’s great friend, who said after the Oprah interview that the trouble with Lance is that while he was a brilliant liar, he sucks at telling the truth. And I think the opposite was true of Floyd.

“Floyd didn’t have to tell so many lies, because people weren’t accusing him of things [he’d already failed a testosterone test] but when he had to lie, like in that press conference, he was hopeless. I think that answer Floyd gave showed that he was conflicted, and he couldn’t actually lie straight out about it because he had so many misgivings. Lance had zero misgivings about what he was doing.”

Walsh on Michele Ferrari: “It’s almost like he denies that all this doping ever happened. I just think ‘man, you are completely crazy’, you know?”

Another of the more provocative performances in the film is Guillaume Canet as Michele Ferrari. Canet’s Ferrari channels more than a little of the mad scientist and occasionally comes across as close to unhinged, a portrayal that Walsh doesn’t think too far from the truth. “I think Ferrari comes across as a little bit crazed, and I think there’s a bit of that about him. There was a piece in Cycling News recently saying that he’s going to sue the filmmakers, and he backed it up by almost saying that Lance never doped! The first bit, saying he never injected Lance so therefore the film was wrong, and therefore I’m going to stop it, I think that’s fair enough if he didn’t. Who knows, he might even have a case! But then he goes on and it’s almost like he ends up denying that all this doping ever happened. And I just think ‘man, you are completely crazy’. You know?”

One of the features of the film is that because it focuses so intently on Armstrong and the US Postal team, Walsh’s character is left slightly incomplete. While we see his triumphs in forcing Armstrong into an impossible position and ultimately his confession, we also see the flip side when Walsh is in court with the Sunday Times defending themselves against the lawsuit. But there’s comparatively little else about Walsh, and how covering the story took its toll on the writer in the interim period. Was there, we wonder, a time when he just felt like giving up?

“Not really, no. I really enjoyed it. It was a tremendous story to be on. When the going got tough as it did in 2004 when we were sued, the following year there were an awful lot of meetings in London with lawyers and barristers, and all of that was really tough, I didn’t like that at all.

“People like Emma O’Reilly, Betsy Andreu, Stephen Swart were putting their necks on the line and Armstrong’s going after them, the last thing I could do is was walk out on them. I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself”

“But, you know, when we were surrendering to him in 2006 I would go home and I would speak with Betsy Andreu and get some new motivation and continue writing From Lance to Landis which I wanted to get out in America. I wanted Americans to have the option of reading an alternative view of the Armstrong story. And I got that book out, and it was a big thing for me.

“People like Emma O’Reilly, Betsy Andreu, Stephen Swart, they put their necks on the line for me. I’m the guy being paid – they’re not being paid, it’s not their job – they’re putting their necks on the line and Armstrong’s going after them, the last thing I could do is was walk out on them. I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself.”

Even when Armstrong sued them Sunday Times, Walsh never considered giving up his pursuit of the Texan (Pic: Benutzer:Hase, Wikimedia Commons)

The film ends just after Armstrong’s confession to Oprah in a dramatic televised interview that was supposed to be the first step on the Texan’s road to redemption, but ended up posing as many questions as it answered. As to whether Armstrong can ever redeem himself in the eyes of the public, Walsh is pretty definitive: not until he’s truly honest about the past. “The Oprah interview was his chance to try and broker a deal with the public. The deal was ‘I’ll tell you quite a bit and, in return, you’ll forgive me’. The way he told it meant that forgiveness never came.

“If he comes out and tells the whole truth and what went on, I can see it happening. I know I’d have a very different attitude towards him if I felt he’d made a full and complete admission. We need to know, Lance. What did Bill Stapleton know? What did Tom Weisel know? And you’ve got to admit that the hospital room happened.”

While Walsh’s direct part in the story might be over, it seems that – like it or not – there’s more to come from Armstrong. The release of The Program has thrust him back into the spotlight and, as the recently renewed feud with Frankie Andreau shows, this movie is far from the end of the Lance Armstrong story.

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