Saturday 20 January 2018

Athletics: If Fagan had not been caught, would he have owned up before the Olympics?

Martin Fagan admitted buying drugs on the internet
Martin Fagan admitted buying drugs on the internet
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

YOU REALLY have to wonder who is fooling who here.

Most of Ireland's top athletes weren't returning calls yesterday on the subject of Martin Fagan.

And those who did were loath to criticise him, even though he has just confessed to injecting himself with an illegal substance in a last-gasp, desperate bid to qualify for the London Olympics.

Fagan has insisted it was a one-off, and that he only did it because he was in a cycle of deep depression that had left him suicidal and irrational.

All of his peers appear to have accepted that explanation, and only Fagan himself seems to understand the damage he has done to them and his sport.

"I can handle the blame, what it's done to my career," he said. "But I hate what it's done to all the other people, my family, the other Irish athletes."

Most of the athletes that the Irish Independent spoke to yesterday said that Fagan's admission that he had tried to cheat would not affect them or their sport adversely.

They viewed his revelation that he'd been suffering from depression as proof that he was just one individual who, having reached rock bottom and suffering a mental illness, made a terrible, tragic mistake that has ended his career.

They believe that, because of his illness, the general public will also view Fagan's as an isolated case.

Thomas Chamney, an Olympic team-mate of Fagan in Bejing in 2008, who himself has seen some terribly "dark days" while forced to sit out the past year with injury and illness, was willing to go on the record and he spoke for many when he said: "I just hope, for Martin's sake, that he gets all the help he needs to get well and healthy again."

A noble and understandable sentiment for sure, but once again Irish athletes, and their sport, are in denial.

None of them appear to understand that Fagan's actions are the sort that will continue to undermine and cast doubt on their own achievements.

None of them seemed to understand that his actions contribute to the cycle that means they have to, ludicrously, account for their whereabouts to the Sports Council 365 days a year, causing their lives to be constantly interrupted by the indignity of repeated out-of-competition drug tests.

They genuinely fail to appreciate that their sport's reputation has been so maligned by drug scandals that many can only view it with a jaundiced eye.

Their blanket acceptance of Fagan's explanation may be laudably loyal, but if he had offered any other defence, surely they would not have accepted it?

Depression and mental illness is a serious matter and, as Gary Speed's case showed recently, even highly successful athletes are not immune from it.

If Fagan suffers from serious depression then he certainly needs help, proper treatment and our sympathy.

But does that really mitigate his actions, which have once again brought his sport into serious disrepute?

The headlines yesterday were all about Fagan, not about the Irish athlete -- Ava Hutchinson -- who actually qualified for London at last Sunday's Houston Marathon, the very race Fagan admits he had hoped to run in while using drugs.

If nothing else, Fagan stole Hutchinson's moment of glory yesterday, but you can't help feeling he has thieved a lot more from Irish athletics this week.

******

Was Fagan good enough to achieve Olympic qualification without drugs?

Yes. He did it four years ago, in heroic circumstances, when he ran a 2:14 marathon in blistering heat in Dubai, a race he finished within the qualifying time despite completing it with several stress fractures of the hip.

He also came agonisingly close to qualifying for his second Olympics on October 9 last. With just a mile to go in the Chicago Marathon he was on target to qualify, but he pulled up exhausted.

Fagan says that he hit a new low after that, stopped taking prescribed medication for depression that he had started last year and also stopped taking regular sleeping pills -- which he suspected contributed to his problems.

"If only I'd got to the line I could have run sub-2:12 and a London qualifier. Instead, I got nothing out. No money.

"A DNF (did not finish) next to my name. And no one cared. That really broke me. The final nail in the coffin really," he said.

******

YET he admits that he was lying to many of the people closest to him who surely did care.

He was being coached, from a distance, by Keith Kelly, a former Irish champion.

"I didn't want to tell him I couldn't run because my head wasn't right. So I would lie to him, tell him training was going well, that I was doing the workouts he was sending me, no problem. But I was in pain most of the day, my whole body," said Fagan.

His agent was Ray Flynn, the man who had got him a starting place and some appearance money to race in last Sunday's Houston Marathon where he had another shot at qualifying for London.

"You get none of that money if you don't show but make the start line, just go on the gun, and you get half of it. I needed that money, whatever I could get. So Ray would ask me how training was going and I'd say 'great, all great'," said Fagan.

******

THERE are many other contradictions in his story. He was "living below the poverty line".

This is a sad reality for many talented international athletes who find themselves in that harsh no man's-land below the elite grade.

Unless they reach a certain level internationally (medal at Europeans or top eight at Worlds/Olympics) they don't get substantial government grant aid. Fagan had received just €12,000 in 2009 and 2010, but lost even that last year.

But Fagan is certainly not the only Irish athlete to find himself in that vicious circle of injury and mounting financial debt, and none of them use that as an excuse for reaching for a syringe.

******

FAGAN says that his mental state culminated with him searching some suicide chat boards last November when an "exit strategy" suddenly hit him and he started browsing for EPO.

EPO (Erythropoietin) stimulates the production of red blood cells and thus a body's oxygen-carrying capacity, which improves performance in endurance events. It can now be detected easily by the testers but it's believed that more sophisticated dopers use other substances to hide it.

"I ordered the cheapest stuff I could find," said Fagan. "Some completely generic brand and just put it on the credit card. I didn't really know what I was doing. It was a two-week supply, but I do know you'd need to be on it for longer than that.

"I was already in meltdown. And I know that no one takes EPO anymore this way. Maybe 10 years ago, yeah. But it's so silly the way I did it because you're certain to get caught."

Given his financial straits it seems remarkable that he paid €500, "on the credit card" to buy drugs from an unknown source.

He insists he was not thinking rationally, that he had never done drugs before and never even been offered them, but he knew enough to know that EPO was 10 years out of date, and we still have to rely on his word that he never took anything before.

******

FAGAN insists this was a once-off. He bought the drugs on the internet, travelled to a friend's apartment in Tucson last December and, on the same day that he had injected himself with his first dose, got a call from his flatmate back in Flagstaff that the dope-testers were looking for him.

"Straightaway I told them where I was. They called back and said they'd be down that evening. I went out for some food that evening and was thinking, I could just sit here, not go home, they won't find me. But I was already in over my head, in such a dark place, I didn't even care," he said.

It has been posited that Fagan's actions were actually a desperate cry for help because EPO is now such an outdated form of doping that he was sure to be caught.

But what if he wasn't caught?

He admits he took it out of desperation, to help him get the qualifying time in last Sunday's Houston Marathon, which he viewed as his last throw of the dice for London.

What if the drug testers hadn't caught him and he'd got the time there, would anyone have ever known that he'd cheated?

With his place secured on the plane to London and Government grant aid secured for another season, are we really expected to believe that he would have owned up, before or after the Olympics?

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport