Saturday 23 September 2017

Gifted and free-spirited star who has fallen to a desperate low

WITH his multiple piercings and tattoos Martin Fagan (28) has always cut an unusual and non-conformist figure on the Irish athletics scene.

The inside of his left arm is inscribed with a quote from his favourite band, Iceland's esoteric and inscrutable Sigur Ros, which roughly translates as "the best thing God created is a new day".

"It just spoke to me when I first heard it," he once told me, indicating his gentle, free-spirited personality. But today is a new day that Fagan has been dreading ever since he heard a knock on a door in Tucson, Arizona early last month.

It will find him standing, disgraced, in front of an anti-doping hearing in Dublin, owning up to the fact that he injected himself with performance-enhancing EPO.

It will result in a two-year ban and spells the end of his elite athletics career. Long tipped to be Mark Carroll's natural successor and Ireland's latest distance star, there is widespread shock that someone so naturally talented could have stooped to such a low.

The leggy Mullingar Harrier confirmed his teenage promise when winning a silver medal at 10,000m in the US collegiate championships.

The American colleges scene attracts the best young athletes in the world, and Fagan spent five years on an athletics scholarship at Providence, Rhode Island. In 2005 he finished fourth at the European U-23 track championships, and he was seventh in the European Cross-Countries in '07.

While in college he was coached by Ray Treacy, brother of Irish Sports Council chairman John, who is in charge of the very body whose Irish arm of the global war against doping in sport has now caught him cheating.

There is no question that Fagan had loads of innate world-class talent and in '09 he confirmed it, making a major breakthrough by breaking John Treacy's 21-year-old Irish half-marathon record.

Since '07 he had been based in Flagstaff, Arizona, an altitude training base at 7,000 feet at the mouth of the Grand Canyon. Flagstaff is little more than a small town, but its altitude and huge local network of running trails makes it a mecca for distance-runners.

When he went there initially and joined a training group coached by Greg McMillan, Fagan had a part-time job in a coffee shop that he loved, not just because it helped with the bills but because it offered him a social outlet.

But when he came home to run for Ireland in the European Cross-Countries in December '07, he got turned back by US immigration after admitting that he was working part-time to support his running career. He wasn't the first Irish athlete to break his visa restrictions this way, but he was innocent enough to get caught.

Some diplomatic interventions were required to ensure he got back into the US, but from then on he couldn't work and his whole life revolved around training.

Last year he left McMillan's group and was coached, from a distance, by former top Irish athlete Keith Kelly who, he insists, knew nothing about his recent dabbling with drugs. Basing himself in Arizona meant Fagan was already distanced from Athletics Ireland and the rest of Ireland's elite athletes.

Most were reticent to comment yesterday, partly because they regard him as a nice guy and also because of his insistence that his depression drove him to cheating.

He was always perceived as a laid-back but rather naïve individual, and in recent years he was seen as an athlete who insisted on doing his own thing and paid little attention to what Athletics Ireland advised.

He had a predilection for injuries which road-racing didn't help, but Fagan argued that he had to run on the roads to keep himself afloat financially as his government grant in recent years was only €12,000, and he lost that a year ago.

He was living the ascetic, tough life that any serious international distance runner endures, a far cry from home in Mullingar where hurling was one of his first loves and DJ Carey a childhood hero.

Irish Independent

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