Sunday 16 December 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: It's not enough that drug cheats chip away at sport's integrity, they insult our intelligence too

USA's Justin Gatlin. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
USA's Justin Gatlin. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Doping doesn’t just compromise the integrity of sport, it also insults our intelligence. So we get statements like the one from Justin Gatlin who declared last week, “I am not using and have not used PEDs,” after it was reported that his coach Dennis Mitchell had offered to supply undercover reporters with performance enhancing drugs.

Now Mitchell’s comments do not in themselves prove Gatlin has been doping lately. But Irish Olympian Thomas Barr spoke for a lot of people when tweeting at the world 100m champion, “Correct me if I’m wrong but have you not served two bans for PEDs. Granted the first one was for medication since childhood. That still narrows it down to one.”

Justin Gatlin has used PEDs in the past. That’s not open for discussion, it’s a statement of fact. Yet here he is pretending to be an athlete with a clean record. He’s lying about something which anyone with the slightest interest in the sport knows about. And if he’s going to do that, it does raise a doubt over how much faith we should place in his current assertions of innocence. Even if he did sack Mitchell after the coach had been entrapped by The Daily Telegraph.

Sorry if that sounds harsh. But all Gatlin had to say was that though he had taken PEDs in the past, he’d learned his lesson and turned over a new leaf. There was no need to try and rewrite his personal history. Justin Gatlin must think people are fools.

I don’t think Chris Froome has a high opinion of the general public’s intelligence either. The South African sports scientist Ross Tucker, whose blog The Science of Sport is essential reading for anyone concerned about doping in sport, has pointed out that the Team Sky star’s excuse for failing a dope test at the Vuelta boils down to, “I had a really bad asthma episode, my symptoms got worse and I was in danger of losing the race. But I didn’t use my pump during the stage for the sake of appearances. Only before the TV interview, which was just before the doping test, for the sake of appearances.”

Froome’s explanation really is that daft. As Tucker notes, “A positive test trying to improve interview performance is novel.” I suppose the explanation could be true. If you really, really wanted to believe in Froome you could maybe perhaps go for it. Just like you could believe that a sprinter with a record of doping started to run the best times of his career at an age when almost all sprinters are slowing down and did it clean. It’s possible, right?

But these explanations don’t seem like the most probable ones. Neither does the one about British cycling being entirely clean and all this shuffling with lost medical records and mysterious substances being transported across continents having a perfectly innocent explanation. Or that Mo Farah missing dope tests, hugely improving his performance after becoming involved with a coach who’s been accused of doping and then lying about working with another coach who’s been caught doping signifies nothing more than the tricky nature of coincidence.

You could believe all these things, just like some people used to believe that Lance Armstrong was the victim of some vast conspiracy where a large group of people had banded together to sully his good name. How did that work out for you, folks?

There was a time when athletes accused of doping simply declared their innocence. These days their defenders are more likely to adopt a ‘Well, you can’t prove 100 per cent that he’s guilty,’ argument. This tortuous and legalistic approach means that those inclined to do so can maintain their illusions for longer. But it greatly fuels public cynicism about high level sport. Mention athletics and cycling to a lot of people these days and you’ll get a sneer and a shake of the head.

It’s an awful pity. Because I still believe that there are athletes and cyclists out there who don’t cheat, for the simple reason that in any field of endeavour there are honest people. Human nature is not entirely rotten. To argue that it is merely peddles cheap cynicism in the guise of realism. And to argue that “sure, they’re all doping. Let them at it,” is to let the worst offenders off the hook and provide comfort to the dopers. “Everyone does it,” is probably what they tell themselves on the odd occasion that conscience threatens to kick in.

Making doping legal, as sometimes suggested by the more thoughtless pundit, doesn’t make sense either. Why should a kid who shows real talent in athletics and cycling be forced to take drugs, some of which carry health risks, in order to achieve their full potential? Sport is compromised enough without adding the active promotion of drug taking to its list of sins. Trying to improve testing and nail as many offenders as possible remains the only feasible approach.

It’s not perfect and it means we have to listen to a lot of lies and bullshit along the way. But in the end Lance Armstrong won’t be the only one who runs out of road. The truth matters.

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