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Asking the difficult questions: A Sports Journalist’s prerogative?

Lance Armstrong celebrates his seventh Maillot Jaune as winner of the Tour de France.

Lance Armstrong celebrates his seventh Maillot Jaune as winner of the Tour de France.

As Lance Armstrong stands triumphant atop a podium on the Champs-Élysées, journalists reporting on the 1999 Tour de France rush to file their copy. The story is undeniably compelling, a terminal cancer survivor returning to dominate one of the most gruelling endurance events in the sporting world. In their haste, many are swept up by the romanticism of the moment and abandon their journalistic prerogative – to scrutinise. Jonathan Grieve explores the danger of sports journalists becoming “fans with typewriters”.

Having cancer of the spirit is not a nice thing to be accused of. But that’s the situation The Times journalist David Walsh found himself in just for doing his job. Walsh reported on his suspicions of Lance Armstrong’s seemingly superhuman performance in capturing his first Maillot Jaune as overall winner of the Tour de France without any real evidence. In doing so Walsh was ostracised, even by some of his fellow journalists.

Walsh, recently named Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards, speaking to Press Gazette about his investigation recalls the first time he raised his suspicions directly to Armstrong.

“I don’t believe you’re clean, but this is why I’m here, because I have questions.

“But the only questions I want to ask you are about doping. I won’t be asking you one question about cycling outside of the context of doping.”

Walsh’s tireless work to uncover the truth about Armstrong and subsequent vindication begs the question: Are sports journalists undermined by the institutions and athletes they cover and the power of an enthralling narrative, or are they complicit by not asking the difficult questions?

Mark Chapman covers a wide range of sports as a presenter for BBC Radio 5 Live and recently fronted a documentary entitled Peddlers: Cycling’s Dirty Truth about the use of performance enhancing drugs in professional cycling. In Chapman’s view, the problem in the coverage of Armstrong was down to the fact that people were unwilling to ask the difficult questions about the performance of someone who had only been declared cancer-free 18 months prior to the first of his seven Tour de France victories.

Chapman does, however, believe that cycling’s chequered past means there are more people covering the sport willing to scrutinise.

“Without a shadow of a doubt. Cycling has always had a history of it, even if you go back to the 60s. So therefore there has been a greater need to question in cycling maybe than there has been in other sports.

“I think those of us who would say we’re journalists in other sports or would say that other sports are our main subject definitely don’t question anywhere near as much.”

A lack of similar high-profile cases in more mainstream sports should not be used as an excuse for a lack of diligence according to Chapman.

“After I did the documentary I got sent a link from about a year ago which includes an article from Gary Neville’s autobiography where he talks about England under Glenn Hoddle.

“There was a doctor that Glenn Hoddle brought in as well who gave them injections, and [the players] never questioned.

“But that came out and I don’t think anyone went ‘oh crikey, what were England doing?’”

Professional cycling famously operated under an omertà, a code of silence among the riders about the open secret of PED use. When questioned whether he thought there was a similar omertà among cycling journalists, Chapman agrees, but argues that a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mentality isn’t limited just to cycling and stresses the importance of asking difficult questions.

“I do a lot of, all the on pitch stuff for example, for the English Cricket Board.

“They pay me every summer to do that but we’re doing a show this evening on it’s four years to the day since the England team played the West Indies team in the Stamford match.

“There are still questions about where some of that money went. We have had to put those questions to the ECB, I can’t go ‘no I can’t ask you that.’”

Continuing on the subject of judgment, Chapman states that balance is an integral part of being a good journalist, especially when reporting on a contentious subject.

“I was proud of the fact that it was balanced, that we made clear to everybody, my bosses and the people we were interviewing and everybody that this wasn’t going be a two-hour programme ripping Lance Armstrong apart because that wasn’t what it was about.

“I think if you put yourself in the position when doing something like that, or when doing features in general, that you see yourself more as the storyteller rather than an investigative journalist then you should get it as balanced as you possibly can.”

David Walsh has not been the only journalist to suffer in pursuit of a story in cycling. Sunday Times journalist and former professional cyclist Paul Kimmage fell foul of professional cycling’s governing body, the International Cycling Union (UCI) and its president Pat McQuaid. The UCI attempted to sue Kimmage for defamation linked to articles he had written about doping in cycling before later dropping the case. Mark Chapman says there are dangers inherent on taking on both individuals and organisations in sport.

“What Armstrong did with David Walsh is wrong, but you can understand it from his point of view, trying to protect everything. As Emma O’Reilly said in the documentary, his problem was he believed he was cycling and is such an alpha male that he’ll take on anyone.

“It’s a very, very fine line between running a sport, protecting a sport and policing a sport. And I’m not sure any governing body can do all of them. I think in many ways you would have to argue that they need to be split up to do those kind of things.”

William Fotheringham has been steeped in the history of cycling since he was 12 years old, listening to French radio coverage of the Tour de France on his dad’s car radio during the school summer holidays. Spending over a year in France as an amateur racer confirmed his love for the sport and Fotheringham has since worked for several major cycling publications while also covering the Tour de France from 1994 onwards. Now cycling correspondent for The Guardian, Fotheringham is well versed in the chaotic life of the Grand Tour covering journalist and talks of how context is key to understanding the coverage of Lance Armstrong in 1999.

“Context is everything. Armstrong’s comeback was a huge event at the time, because he was returning from cancer to compete at the very highest level. For him to win the Tour was a massive event and it was impossible not to be enthusiastic about it in 1999.”

Despite this enthusiasm, Fotheringham admits that he was sceptical about the validity of Armstrong’s victory, describing his opinion on the subject at the time as a “set of scales where you have a couple of nagging doubts”.

The role of a soigneur in a professional cycling team is extremely important, as they develop close relationships with the riders and are responsible for looking after them, particularly during the gruelling three-week-long Grand Tours. This includes feeding the rider, providing and looking after their kit and massaging them. In recent years it has become more apparent that it was also sometimes the responsibility of a soigneur to aid a rider’s PED use. The most prominent PED-related scandal in cycling prior to Lance Armstrong’s dominance of the sport came just one year before Armstrong’s first victory. The Festina Affair was blown open when Willy Voet, soigneur for senior Festina rider Richard Virenque, was stopped at the Belgian-French border with a significant amount of doping products in his car. William Fotheringham thinks this played an important part in the willingness of some journalists to accept Lance Armstrong as the saviour of the Tour de France.

“However much journalists suspected before 1998, nothing was known for certain. As I’ve said, the assumption immediately post-Festina was that cycling would change because in a rational world that’s what would happen.”

Fotheringham’s enthusiasm won the day over his doubts, believing that Armstrong won the 1999 Tour de France clean. Despite his uncertainty, Fotheringham didn’t pursue the story in the same way that David Walsh did, and talked about his unwillingness to ask the hard questions in an interview for cycling website Podium Café.

“It’s very British, but personally I am shy about asking those hard questions.

“For me, to ask a rider I have seen at a few press conferences if he takes drugs is like asking a female athlete if she pays too much attention to her looks. It’s too personal. It would be like saying to an accountant ‘I think you are a liar and a cheat, am I right?’”

In spite of his own unwillingness to ask the hard questions and scrutinise the athletes he covers, Fotheringham does agree with the assessment that journalists who cover cycling do hold people to account more than their counterparts in other sports. He believes that contemporary cycling coverage in particular has been informed by Operation Puerto, a 2006 Spanish police investigation into a doping network which involved a large number of professional cyclists.

“In terms of scrutiny of the competitors I think cycling is pretty severe. Le Monde’s questioning of Armstrong in 1999 was severe, Walsh’s questioning of Lance in 2001 was severe and it has built since then.

“You don’t hear of journalists in tennis, athletics or soccer questioning the integrity of the athletes with the frequency with which it seems to happen in cycling, particularly since 2006.

“The real game changer in terms of attitude to the sport was actually Operation Puerto in 2006, when it was clear that the sport was riddled with blood doping at the highest level because of the sheer number of Tour favourites involved.”

Fotheringham does, however, see some reporters as being overly critical, saying that some use cycling’s past as an excuse to make allegations he describes as “tenuous and borderline libellous.”

Scott Dougal, Head of Communications for British Cycling, believes that the renewed scrutiny that has been dragged up by the publication of USADA’s reasoned decision in their case against Lance Armstrong is self-inflicted and necessary.

“Cycling has to pay its dues in that respect and not talking about just British Cycling but cycling as a whole, in my opinion, has to bear the burden of the last twenty years.

“Whether that’s fair or not is immaterial. Cycling is where it is and part of the narrative is that cycling is a dirty sport unfortunately.”

As a former sports editor for Press Association, however, Dougal agrees that the media was not critical enough in its coverage of PED use in cycling but also stresses that these failures should not be laid entirely at the feet of journalists.

“It’s very hard for individual journalists to break out because they’re doing effectively what the desk wants so a lot of the impetus to chase doesn’t come from the individual reporter.

“It comes from sitting at the desk saying why the fuck haven’t we got this angle? Why aren’t we writing this line?”

In awarding David Walsh the titles of Sport Journalist of the Year and Journalist of the Year for his 13-year-long investigation into Lance Armstrong, the British Journalism Awards judges were effusive in their praise.

“David Walsh became a pariah for years in his chosen sport in order to get to the truth of this story.

“He pursued it and pursued it. The US Anti-Doping Agency would never have taken Armstrong on if it hadn’t been for David Walsh.

“It was a fine example of great investigative journalism.”

Walsh’s tireless pursuit ended with the exposal of one of the most influential sporting personalities in history. It began with just an opinion and a desire to ask the difficult questions.

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