David Walsh says he remembers the day it became clear to him that Lance Armstrong was a fraud. It was during the 1999 Tour de France, Armstrong’s first title, and it came on the day the French rider, Christophe Bassons, quit the race. Bassons, an average cyclist known more for his anti-doping stance, had hinted in a newspaper column at a darker side to Armstrong’s record speed in his first Tour since being diagnosed with cancer. He then found himself isolated while racing by his fellow riders and, at some point, Armstrong rode up alongside and asked him to quit the tour.

Bassons, mentally broken, duly did so. Walsh, the chief sportswriter for The Sunday Times, did not—even though, like Bassons, he was frequently isolated, targeted and threatened. His—and his paper’s—was often the sole dissenting voice as Armstrong picked up trophies and yellow jerseys, and a fairly prominent halo too. The cynicism didn’t go down well with all (certainly most) of his readers; one of them wrote in to suggest Walsh’s campaign betrayed a “cancer of the spirit". As Walsh noted wryly in a recent article: “The good thing about investigating Armstrong was that there weren’t many rivals trying to beat you to the story."

It’s not that Armstrong’s, and cycling’s, links with banned substances were unknown; they were an open secret that no one wanted to reveal. The reason was obvious: Armstrong was one of the world’s most high-profile sportsmen, his phenomenal success on the bike matched by his success off it as a cancer survivor and as an inspiration to other victims of the disease through his foundation and its distinctive yellow Livestrong bracelets. There was much, much more at stake here than one man’s reputation, and Armstrong’s protective circle, including powerful media and corporate institutions, bullied or bribed—with offers of exclusive interviews—into silence those who probed too closely into his track record. Greg LeMond, the only American to win the Tour until Armstrong, offered this caveat in 2001: “If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sport. If he isn’t, it would be the greatest fraud."

The French sports newspaper L’Équipe raised questions about his 1999 performance but soon found its wings clipped by its owners—who also owned the Tour de France.

Walsh’s resilience is a credit to sports journalists—all journalists—across the globe. It’s never easy being the one asking uncomfortable questions of a universally celebrated success story—though that is exactly what is needed in these times of rapid and great achievements in all fields of human endeavour. Yet how many times in the recent past have we seen that our idols had clay feet all along, flaws that we missed when gazing at the halo?

Tiger Woods’ indiscretions—of less sporting significance than Armstrong’s doping but heavily damaging nonetheless to his corporate sponsors—must have been known to those on the golf beat but no one broke the omertà. In the days after Woods’ spectacular fall from grace came a report that a top US tabloid had killed a story about one of Woods’ affairs in exchange for an exclusive to a sister publication. The outing of Barry Bonds, one of baseball’s all-time greats, and multiple Olympic medallist Marion Jones by Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada of the San Francisco Chronicle came at a potentially heavy price: The journalists were sentenced to 18 months in prison for refusing to name their sources but never actually had to serve time.

A lesser-known but more recent case involved the conviction of Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant coach of the Penn State University football team, on 45 counts of sexual abuse of young boys. Sandusky had been coaching for over 30 years and enjoyed legendary status in the high-profile world of college football. In 1977, he founded a charity helping underprivileged youth and that’s where he met most of his victims. The first investigations began in 2008 but it’s estimated that the abuse began as far back as the 1970s. This begged the question (in a scenario eerily reminiscent of the unmasking of British entertainer Jimmy Savile), how was it covered up for so long and what was the media doing?

The story was first covered by The Patriot-News, whose reporter, Sara Ganim, won a Pulitzer for her reportage; as with TheSunday Times and Armstrong, the coverage drew criticism from readers. In an article last year, when Sandusky was formally charged with child sex abuse, the paper’s then editor, David Newhouse, put into focus the perils of reporting on a story like this. The problems begin with the victims’ reluctance to talk; the parents’ wariness and general trauma then leaves enough room for the culprit to fog the trail, sow seeds of doubt. What’s left is rumour and, all the while, the constant awareness for the media house that it is playing a high-stakes game.

In Not Quite Cricket, his chronicle of match-fixing in India, Pradeep Magazine brings out the peculiar problems facing Indian journalists: opaque administrations, often with murky agendas, a fragmented media and the propensity of “victims" to play the patriotism card. Every revelatory story has met the same response: denial, at best a staged investigation, and then a closing of the ranks by all parties. Or perhaps not peculiar to India: It took three years for the Australian cricket board, Cricket Australia, to publicly acknowledge that Shane Warne and Mark Waugh had supplied information to illegal bookies. That too only after the board was effectively rumbled by journalist Malcolm Conn.

The examples of Walsh, Magazine and Ganim, and others of their ilk, are needed more than ever today—especially in reporting on Indian sport, which is growing at a superfast rate with hundreds of crores being invested across the board. Speed doesn’t usually pay heed to rules and regulations, norms and niceties, and we Indians, as a people, are not averse to the occasional short cut to our destination.

Success—whether on the field, by way of medals or trophies, or off it, by way of attracting and staging the biggest global events—is not always subject to the closest scrutiny. No one wants to spoil a good-news story.

Yet Armstrong’s case offers us this lesson: Celebrate the idols—but keep an eye out for the clay feet.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.

Write to Jayaditya at extratime@livemint.com

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