9 August 2017

Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh

David Walsh, an Irish sportswriter from Kilkerry, Ireland, works for The Sunday Times. I read half this book on the seven hour flight home from Dublin.

Anyone that knows me even remotely, or more accurately, anyone who has ever met me, knows that I am deeply obsessed with Lance Armstrong's career. He is the most fascinating man to me. He would be my "dead or alive" dinner. Meg and I also love a story of obsession ... especially when it gets to the point where it could potentially ruin their life. This is most obvious in our obsession with the movie Flash of Genius (2008). 

So imagine my pure joy when I found a book titled Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong. There is even ANOTHER subtitle which goes "A journalist's thirteen-year quest for the truth about a champion." This book was made for me. I told Meg on the phone that this review would be my opus.

I don't really know how I became so fascinated by Armstrong. I'm sure it had to do with when I first watched The Armstrong Lie (2013) which everyone and their dog should watch. I remember starting to be really interested in the pressures athletes face and what it means to be a "hero." I should say right now I am a little bit of an Armstrong sympathizer. I just think he was in a position of unimaginable pressure - as an athlete, but also as a cancer survivor and icon. Competition is incredibly interesting to me, and people that are so driven to win that they will essentially do anything to hit that target fascinate me.

This book is essentially Walsh going through his years writing about Armstrong and how the cyclist was finally disgraced and stripped of all his titles. He also does a really great job giving you a history of doping in the Tour de France (no, it didn't start with Armstrong). He pretty much goes through the case that those suspicious of Armstrong had built up, introducing you to the people in Armstrong's life that eventually helped dismantle his lie.

Anyways, here is my attempt to organize this review somewhat meaningfully:

1. Sympathy for the devil

I feel bad for everyone, it's my disease.

I know I am completely alone in feeling sorry for Armstrong, but here's the thing: NO ONE knows what it is like to be in that situation. This man is adored for being a cancer survivor who came back to "win" SEVEN Tours... It's a fucking fairytale. It's also an enormous pressure none of us can understand.

The other thing is that everyone doped in cycling. If you didn't you couldn't even be a contender:

[...] Every rider was forced to make a choice: dope and have a career; don't dope and watch your career go down the drain ... It's the sport that corrupts the individual."

I honestly believe that people would be more likely to forgive Armstrong if he wasn't such a total asshole. Armstrong didn't just deny that he was a cheater, he would personally ruin your life if you suggested he was. This man had 200 personal vendettas.

Reporters were terrified of him, so the media spent a lot of time sucking up to him and not pushing back on all the suspicious activity surrounding the U.S. Postal team. He would make press conferences super uncomfortable and could make any of his critics pariahs. He famously asked a journalist "are you calling me a liar or a doper?" Obviously Walsh fell outside of this group. He spent his entire career railing against Armstrong in the media, even when it was incredibly unpopular to do so.

I love that Walsh doesn't make any attempt to write this book as an objective journalist. From the opening pages it is made very clear that he HATES Armstrong. The second epigraph is from David Fincher's Se7en: "You're no messiah. You're a movie of the week. You're a fucking T-shirt at best." Armstrong openly referred to Walsh as "the little troll," and their mutual disgust for each other is actually hilarious. Walsh writes with a lot of passion and attention to detail, but he can also be quite funny too:

Donald Trump had turned up to listen in on a press conference Lance gave in New York. People mentioned this as if it was a good thing."

I guess what interests me the most about Armstrong is just his obsession and ruthless dedication to winning. He HATES losing. A defense he often used was "Look what I've been through! Why would I put that crap in my body?" And what's scary is that despite what he had been through (cancer that spread its way almost throughout his entire body) he WAS willing to put those harmful substances into his body.

2. Love and loss in sports writing

The opening epigraph is so beautiful, and it really embodies how Walsh feels about cycling now:

I watch the Olympic Games but I don't bother to remember the names of the athletes anymore. It's like theatre - but I prefer the theatre because the relationship between actor and spectator is clear. In sports theatre, both are still pretending it's real." - Sandro Donati

He is just so disappointed in the sport that he was once in love with ... You can almost feel his heartbreak. I know this sounds dramatic, but as someone who is now a deeply passionate basketball fan I understand that pure love that comes with the game. When the Cavaliers won the 2016 NBA finals I remember thinking I could run 200 miles down the street screaming at the top of my lungs, I was that excited. I almost cried watching a 225-pound, 6-foot-6 J.R. Smith weep with joy. SPORTS ARE BEAUTIFUL.

It was a shot by a photographer who we knew back then only as Nutan, and it showed the great Belgian cycling champion Eric Vanderaerden worming his way through the masses of fans to the start line. As he did so, a man in his early thirties held a baby in his left arm, and with his right hand he stretched the child's left hand forward until the infant's fingers touched the cyclist's back. Devotion to a sport had never been so poignantly expressed or beautifully captured. Back then I could identify totally with the innocence in that act of adoration."

Sports journalist and author David Walsh

This is what makes Walsh's story so sad. You see how passionate he is about cycling and how he truly feels like he has the best job in the world. You believe he isn't doing it for the money or the ego, he's doing it because he gets to go to these sporting events. It consumes his life. He moved from Kilkerry County, Ireland, to Paris, France, because of cycling... And doping RUINED that innocent love.

He got to the top because he never lost that hunger and he was loved because he remained true to the modest background whence he had come. Pills rattling against plastic didn't fit into the story. When you're a fan, as I was, you don't ask the hero about the sound that came from his pocket."

I love this quotation so much because it really shows how crushing it is when someone you admire doesn't turn out to be the way you thought they were. Meg has this awful story about seeing Margaret Atwood at Western University that always makes me so sad. This quotation is also so interesting to me because you see how badly we want certain narratives to fit. People want a cancer survivor to win seven titles, they don't want him to be a cheater.

Cyclists during a climb in the Tour de France

3. The Tour de France is fucked

Just about every person up on the podium grinning was a cheater. Again, this didn't start with Armstrong. Walsh details the sport's history with doping and how deep the cheating ran. I came away from this book feeling like I knew A LOT about corrupt the Tour was.

Twenty people have died as a result of the Tour de France, and four of them were cyclists who were competing. Two of them died from doping related incidents.

Tommy Simpson rode to his death in the Tour de France so doped that he did not know he had reached the limit of his endurance. He died in the saddle, slowly asphyxiated by intense effort in a heatwave after taking methyl-amphetamine drugs and alcoholic stimulants." - J.L. Manning

I loved the way Walsh reflects on these deaths. I found him to be super insightful in the way he relates the deaths to how the Tour was perceived and covered by journalists. This is particularly well done when he continues to address the tragedy that was Simpson's death:

Simpson's famously heroic last words, 'Put me back on my bike!' were never uttered. They were invented by Sid Saltmarsh, who was covering the event for Sun and Cycling."

All the lying and cheating didn't just stop at the competitors, it carried all the way up to their doctors and even the organization itself. If you questioned whether or not doping was still a problem in the Tour you had a harder time getting interviews, getting people to share accommodations / rides with you, and the like. My favourite way Walsh characterizes what it's like to be skeptical of Armstrong is shown in this quote: 

Asking questions about Lance Armstrong, sporting hero and pioneer in the fight against cancer, could make you feel like something of a cancer yourself."

 Irish actor Chris O'Dowd portraying David Walsh in The Program (2015)
I loved this book because the subject matter is fascinating to me. Walsh covers so many interesting topics from doping to journalism to sport fanaticism. His hatred for Armstrong is almost comical, but it actually really serves the book well. You go in knowing it is biased, but it doesn't matter.

Walsh also did something in the last chapter that I really, really loved. He got reactions from just about everybody involved in the Armstrong case after his titles were stripped and everyone finally learned the truth. You get to hear from Frank and Betsy Andreu, as well as Emma O'Reilly and Greg LeMond (all people who had a HUGE part in taking down Armstrong). It was a really satisfying end to the book.

Finally, here is a quotation from the middle of the book that I really loved:

And this room in Indiana, where the disease eating his body changed the context of everything, this room far away from pesky testers and shifty Europeans, this room with its poorly drawn borders of confidentiality, this was where it happened. A small human thing, but Betsy's account was utterly believable. Lance was comfortable being surrounded by people who all had a stake in him one way or another. He misread the terrain."

OK, I'm ready to shut up. Please bring this subject matter to my attention if we are ever at a party together.

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