Friday 24 November 2017

Catching up with the cheats

Athletics received bad press in the past week but at least it is taking the fight to the dopers, writes John O'Brien

John O'Brien

When the barrage of positive tests started flowing – the much-loved American sprinter Tyson Gay first, a slew of Jamaican athletes just a few hours later – Brian Murphy wasn't torn about how to feel. For the sport he loves passionately, Murphy was in no doubt that this was a wonderful day. 'Testing is working,' the Irish 400m runner tweeted. 'Protectionism is gone, cheats will be scared. I only see the upside in this.'

Not everyone shared his optimism. Others were "shocked" and "appalled" that so many sprinters would resort to underhand methods to keep up with the best. On Thursday, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Carmelita Jeter, the reigning Olympic 100m gold and silver medal holders, walked out of a press conference in Monaco when reporters had the audacity to ask questions about doping. "I just wanna run, laugh and have fun," Jeter said. "Too much negativity going on."

So what do they expect? With Gay and Powell added to the list of shame, the statistics now show that just under 40 per cent of the 10 fastest male sprinters each year since 1999 have been associated with drugs at some point in their career. Half of the 2012 Olympic final line-up now have asterisks beside their names. If the others fall at some point, as happened in the wake of Seoul in 1988, will anyone be truly shocked or appalled?

That growing numbers of cheats are being nabbed is beyond question. Sixteen Jamaican athletes have been found guilty of doping violations in the past five years. The news last week that five Russian athletes had also tested positive brought to 49 the number of Russian athletes currently on the black list due to doping offences. Whether that is due to more efficient policing or down to the fact that cheating is simply more widespread is an open question.

Either way, as Murphy suggests, there is always a reason to celebrate when big doping stories are broken. Gay's positive test for an unidentified substance wasn't the disaster for athletics it was purported to be. It merely served to show that those who vehemently proclaim their purity, hungrily embracing anti-doping campaigns, are, in essence, no more believable than those who remain stringently silent. If anything, their hypocrisy is arguably worse than the crime of doping itself.

Gay made people believe, though. He signed up to Wada's My Victory campaign and endorsed the wholesomeness of clean running at every available opportunity, a role model people could put their trust in. Even his times seemed believable. Once – between 2005 and 2006 – he improved his PB by a massive 0.22 seconds but otherwise his career was devoid of the huge leaps that cast huge shadows over others. People liked Tyson Gay and believed he could topple Usain Bolt. Clean.

That illusion was shattered last week, Gay's only redemption coming from his insistence that he would accept his fate "like a man". So no flimsy excuses, no beer-fuelled orgy, no sinister presence tampering with his tube of toothpaste. The novelty value alone was compelling. "I'm going to be honest with USADA [the US anti-doping agency] about everything," Gay said, "everybody I've been with, every supplement I've ever taken, every company I've ever dealt with, everything."

By being as good as his word, Gay could do his sport a service he could never have managed in his adidas spikes. Because the reality is that, for all the cheats exposed last week, random dope-testing on its own will never be that effective as a deterrent. What anti-doping authorities need most are informants, those on the inside willing to expose wrongdoing, thus enabling either federal agents to be called in or target testing to be conducted.

It is how the two biggest doping stories of recent times surfaced. In the Balco scandal in 2003, Victor Conte was betrayed by his one-time colleague, Trevor Graham, and in the crossfire that ensued, Conte exacted revenge by passing on information against Graham and a number of athletes he coached, including Justin Gatlin. Operation Puerto kicked into gear when a cyclist, Jesus Manzano, gave an interview to a Spanish newspaper that lifted the lid on the dubious activities of Eufemiano Fuentes, a well-known Spanish doctor.

To some, taking the word of proven cheaters is a morally questionable activity, but it is also useful and, arguably, necessary too. When Conte says, for example, that he doesn't believe it possible for athletes to run 100m significantly under 10 seconds without chemical assistance, why shouldn't we trust him?

Brian Murphy likes to point to the 2003 World Championships, around the time of the Balco scandal, when the cheats, presumably, were lying low. The result? Gold for Kim Collins in 10.07, the slowest winning time in 20 years.

Conte has always remained suspicious of the performances emanating from Jamaica. In Beijing, he watched Fraser-Pryce sprint to the 100m gold medal and wondered where she had come from. A year before the 2008 Olympics, Fraser-Pryce's personal best was 11.31. Now here she was sprinting to gold in a time of 10.78, a scarcely credible leap in sprinting terms. Conte simply could not believe what he was seeing.

Conte had what he regarded as a useful point of reference. A few years earlier, he had coached the American sprinter Kelli White and once improved her best time from 11.19 to 10.85. And that, he said, was after White had been placed on a "very sophisticated drug regime". Conte had achieved some notable results with the likes of Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery but the Jamaicans, as far as he was concerned, were on another level entirely.

Whatever substance attaches to Conte's suspicions, it was undeniably a bad week for the image of Jamaican athletics. It isn't just the positive tests returned by Powell and four other athletes. It is the suggestion that the Jamaican federation sanctioned just one out-of-competition test in the lead-up to London last year. It is the failure too of Jamaican athletics authorities to give details of their anti-doping programme. Wherever there is a lack of transparency, suspicion moves in to fill the void.

With each guilty athlete, of course, it becomes more difficult for aggrieved Jamaicans to play their traditional jealousy card, that such suspicions are a by-product of American anger at their sprinters having to play second fiddle. When Veronica Campbell-Brown failed a test last month, it could be partially excused on the basis she was a US-based athlete, a former training partner of Tyson Gay, in fact. Ditto when Steve Mullings was handed a lifetime ban in 2011.

But now it is five of their home-based athletes under the microscope and, with grim inevitability, the finger of suspicion wags ever more vigorously in the direction of Bolt. This is harsh but unavoidable. With Bolt's former training partner, Yohan Blake, and now Gay having succumbed to the doping virus, that necessarily makes the world record holder an even greater "genetic freak" than his defenders make him out to be.

None of this constitutes a disaster for athletics, though. If anything, it shows it is at least facing up to complex and deep-rooted problems. Unlike other sports.

Last year Bolt's camp had to fend off rumours that the athlete was working with Angel 'Memo' Heredia, a former colleague of Conte at Balco. In an interview last year, Conte said Heredia had worked with the Jamaican team at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, although there is no evidence to substantiate this claim.

Where Heredia did surface, however, now calling himself Hernandez, it was as coach of Juan Manuel Marquez who, at the age of 40, summoned the necessary explosive power to knock the great Manny Pacquaio unconscious in the ring in Las Vegas last December.

In the light of what we know of other sports, athletics needs feel no particular shame. Last month USADA released figures detailing the testing procedures of various sports in the first quarter of the year and the results were truly shocking. While athletics emerged top with 496 tests, 392 out of competition, other sports like tennis, a miserly 19 tests, lagged seriously behind. Embarrassingly, curling with 35 tests beat soccer (five) and pro boxing (26) combined.

The real scandal, of course, is paying lip service or doing nothing. And that, at least, cannot be laid at athletics' door. A bunch of cheats were exposed last week, and yet we are to believe that the sport's credibility suffers as a result. That's not how it should work, though. Every cheat unmasked means we can believe just that tiny bit more. As Brian Murphy suggested, it was, on the contrary, a good week for the sport.

Irish Independent

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