Sunday 23 October 2016

Faster, higher, stronger, slyer

Published 07/08/2016 | 02:30

Ireland's Michael O'Reilly made the headlines after testing positive for a banned substance. Photo: Paul Mohan / Sportsfile
Ireland's Michael O'Reilly made the headlines after testing positive for a banned substance. Photo: Paul Mohan / Sportsfile

It was another sad case of "Say it ain't so" when one of our best prospects for an Olympic gold medal appeared to have tested positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance. Unfortunately, it now appears that it is so.

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There has been some controversy about just when the sports authorities knew about the result of Michael O'Reilly's 'A' sample and whether they could have dealt with the matter a week ago before he travelled to Rio. But really, that is of no consequence.

What matters is that the phenomenon of drugs in sport has reared its ugly head again, and this time it is an Irish boxer who stands accused. If Michael O'Reilly is sent home from Rio, he will be the first Olympic boxer ever to suffer this fate.

Boxing is the Cinderella of Irish sport, but like the man in the Bible given least, it has produced the most in terms of international honours and so has a special place in our affections. But the rules apply to everyone.

Top-flight athletes have two imperatives - to train rigorously and get themselves to the peak of fitness so they can use their full potential in competition, and to ensure that no banned substances enter their systems. Each is equally important. They have the help of coaches, dietary experts and other professionals, but at the end of the day the responsibility to stay clean is a personal one. Getting to the top requires extreme discipline, and indiscipline seems to have been a problem in the past for the Portlaoise man who carried our hopes in the very tough middleweight division after some very impressive performances recently.

When an athlete falls foul of the rules they have a choice (other than owning up and accepting their fate). They can opt to have the 'B' sample tested if they are fully convinced of their innocence, believing that this horrible mistake could not happen twice. Or, as Michael O'Reilly appears to be doing, they can reach for their lawyers - not his first time to take this course to stay in competition - and appeal. The grounds for appeal from the little we have been told so far are that the illegal substance was ingested innocently in a supplement. That defence has been tried before by others (including Irish athlete Geraldine Hendricken in 2003) without success. It is unlikely to succeed now.

Pat Hickey, the head of the Irish Olympic Council, suggests that the Irish Government might not be so quick to condemn this type of cheating in other jurisdictions, now that one of our own has been accused. He was wrong. The Government was right to join with others in condemning this practice because it goes against everything that competitive sport is supposed to stand for. It is hard to understand the mentality of someone who could win by cheating. Imagine, if Ben Johnson had not been caught in 1988 he would be today standing among the greats passing on the mantle to Usain Bolt. We know drug-taking is widespread in sport - in some sports more than others.

The Rio opening ceremony was tremendous. We look forward to some thrilling weeks ahead when we may see more history-making performances from the likes of Bolt, Michael Phelps and David Rudisha, or something exciting and uplifting from a new young champion. That is what the Olympics is all about. It is about honest endeavour, striving for the best in the arena. There is no place in that arena for cheats - in any sport.

Sunday Independent

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