Sunday 22 October 2017

Better to stay quiet than cloud drug issue

John O'Brien

There was a lot going on last week so perhaps it was understandable that Eamonn Coghlan's extraordinary outburst regarding Michelle de Bruin in Athlone only merited a few column inches in last weekend's newspapers. The senator, in case you missed it, dubbed De Bruin Ireland's "greatest Olympian" while castigating the Irish Olympic Council for failing to select her as a torch bearer and the public in general for not treating her with the reverence Coghlan believes she deserves.

Where to begin here? Coghlan was in the midlands to receive the distinguished fellowship of Athlone Institute of Technology alongside Barry McGuigan, Sonia O'Sullivan and the paralympian, Mark Rohan. What the others made of Coghlan's vehement defence of the former swimmer is unclear. Perhaps they weren't within earshot at the time or weren't approached for their views. Or maybe they were and chose to remain silent. We simply don't know.

Yet how do you think O'Sullivan, for one, would feel? In 1993, O'Sullivan finished fourth behind three Chinese athletes in the 3,000m at the World Championships in Stuttgart and second behind another Chinese athlete in the 1,500m. Their coach, Ma Junren, trained two other athletes who failed drug tests.

Coghlan's argument for a more clement view of De Bruin is based on the fact that she never tested positive for drugs -- despite the traces of androstenedione found in her 1998 sample -- and that her four-year ban for tampering came two years after her four-medal haul in Atlanta. She didn't test positive in 1996. She still has her medals and some of her records. Ergo, Coghlan appears to be saying, we can still believe in her innocence.

What jars first here is the obvious hypocrisy. If we are morally bound to celebrate De Bruin's Olympic achievements, then we should also gracefully accept the scarcely credible performances by the Chinese girls three years earlier. After all, none of those athletes tested positive either. Not that Coghlan has ever been heard banging the drum on behalf of Ma Junren's athletes. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Coghlan will still have to go some to overtake Jimmy Magee as the swimmer's greatest advocate, yet his spirited defence was alarming in a way that the commentator's harmless romanticising could never be. It's not simply that Coghlan was one of our greatest athletes and remains a generous contributor to his sport, but that his views reflect the reality that too many athletes, both present and past, are soft or evasive when it comes to the issue of performance-enhancing drugs or the manipulation of tests.

Our history in this regard is less than glorious. Gary O'Toole bravely voiced his suspicions of De Bruin as others preferred to bask in the glory of her triumphs that summer in Atlanta, while Paul Kimmage lifted the lid on cycling's pervasive doping culture at a time when it wasn't particularly fashionable or profitable to do so. But they remain honourable exceptions to the general rule of keeping your head down and remaining schtum about it all.

When Martin Fagan tested positive for EPO earlier this year, it proved a grim struggle for Irish athletics writers to find an Irish athlete willing to speak out about Fagan's actions or even to say anything at all. When Chris Hoy was asked in the UK last week about the prospect of drugs cheat David Millar competing in London this summer, what class of rage could he muster? "I'm comfortable with whoever is selected because they are eligible for the team."

Those at the front line in the war against drugs must despair when they hear such wishy-washy views being expressed. Last week, Stephen Roche popped up on radio to talk about his new autobiography and expressed his agreement with Coghlan's views on De Bruin. Given that an official Italian judicial investigation unequivocally found that Roche was administered EPO, it's perhaps not surprising that it would be so, despite his denials and the fact that he never failed a drug test.

Roche's former Irish team-mate, Seán Kelly, had his own issues with drugs too but is famously reticent when it comes to addressing them. When the topic of his own doping arises during interviews, Kelly is known to clam up and change the subject, preferring to dwell only on the sunnier aspects of his sport.

It would be nice to think both Roche and Kelly would have much to say about the ongoing campaign against seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong, but you wonder too if their views would be worth hearing. Last week, the US Anti-doping Agency (USADA) pressed fresh doping charges against Armstrong and much of the case against him will depend on the testimonies of former cyclists who came clean about their past and, belatedly, tried to help their sport in a way they failed to do while in the saddle.

In Ireland, we have a rich history of dopers but precious few who came clean and offered honest appraisals that would help us understand why athletes resort to drugs and assist in the fight against them. That's what makes Coghlan's outburst so hard to stomach. It suggests a certain ambivalence towards doping when zero tolerance should be the only way forward.

We know the war against doping is both necessary and unwinnable. It doesn't need to be made any harder. If Coghlan truly felt like he did, then silence would have been the better option.

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