Domhnall MacAuley: “Seven Deadly Sins” and Lance Armstrong

Domhnall MacauleyThe sports medicine book of the year? No, not some worthy academic text or edited works of the great and the good (and, yes, I did one of these this year myself), but, David Walsh’s new book—Seven Deadly Sins—charting the evolution of his doubts and subsequent investigations into Lance Armstrong and doping. David spoke last night, without even a hint of bitterness in spite of all he experienced, of his role in the sports story of the decade—the doping story of the seven times Tour de France winner. This is a medical story that includes details of conversations at the hospital bedside during Armstrong’s recovery from cancer, his drug and blood transfusion propelled victories, and the complex relationship between the one time sporting giant and his team mates, doctors, managers, lawyers and their multiple lawsuits and, most of all, David Walsh’s struggle to uncover the truth.

David loves sport. A self confessed cycling fan, he told us how he first moved to Paris to write a biography of one of his heroes. His first doubts began when, at the start of a race, he heard the unmistakeable rattle of pills in the back pocket of a cycling legend. His love of cycling overwhelmed his still naive journalistic instinct and he let it pass. But, with Armstrong it was different. He had grown up. And, so had the doping story.

Walsh wasn’t a believer and it made life very difficult. Armstrong vilified him and anyone who associated with him was considered fair game. On one occasion it became so difficult for fellow journalists that they could not be seen to share a car journey with Walsh to a race and he was left on the side of the road. Still he battled on in spite of lawsuits and supported by the Sunday Times. At a time when journalism is having such a difficult time, Walsh was generous in his thanks for their support when it must have been difficult and unpopular. Incidentally, the book launch itself was in the News International building in Wapping.

Cycling was medically driven. Walsh doesn’t feel that Armstrong’s team was alone and clearly a number of doctors were complicit. And, I imagine, many other doctors knew what was going on and said little. Walsh states “(Greg) Lemond  believed that since doctors took over from old school soigneurs (medically unqualified ‘carers’ who dispensed doping products in the old days) the situation had gone from bad to much worse.” Tyler Hamilton’s book (The Secret Race) is fascinating as it outlines the travelling pharmacy and blood transfusion circus. But, Walsh’s story records the heroic work of one journalist in trying to address the problems of doping in cycling and of Lance Armstrong, in particular. Sport owes a lot to David Walsh.

Domhnall MacAuley is primary care editor, BMJ