Monday 18 December 2017

'It can be a dark place at times'

Despite Martin Fagan's sad story, our athletes have more support than ever, writes John O'Brien

When Martin Fagan arrived in Providence College on a four-year scholarship in 2001, Liam Reale had already been there a year. Forming an instant bond wasn't difficult. At home they had been friends and rivals on the track since the age of 12. Now they had fetched up, still raw teenagers, at a place far from home, in a harsh athletic environment where you had to adapt quickly to survive, and the embrace of a vibrant Irish community was a welcome bulwark against loneliness.

For Irish athletes making the journey across the Atlantic, it had always been the way. Since JP Reardon became the first to try his luck in America after the 1948 Olympics, the history has been littered with the achievements of those who made it -- from Eamonn Coghlan to Marcus and Sonia O'Sullivan and Mark Carroll -- and the many more who slipped through the cracks and returned home to pick up the thread of their lives.

"It's always been a hard road," says Frank Greally, an East Tennessee graduate in the 1970s. "I'll never forget my first summer there. I'd no money to go home. You're in this vast, mountainous area with nothing much to do and there's an intense loneliness about it. I stuck with it to the end but there were times that first year I could easily have crashed out."

Greally has seen things improve over the years, helped by the arrival of the internet and the ready availability of social media and skype. Yet one essential truth remains. For all the available distractions, athletes remain prey as much as ever to the whims of elite sport, the grim frustration that inevitably follows sustained periods of inactivity that test the athlete's resolve to its core.

"I think there's a misconception about what it's like," says Reale. "It sounds great. Four years on scholarship, your education and accommodation paid for. But they don't see the sacrifices. They don't know what it's like to uproot yourself and enter a whole new culture. It's great when racing is going well and you're on top of the world. But all it takes is an injury or one bad run and everything changes. The loneliness of the long distance runner is so true. It can be a dark, dark place at times."

To understand the journey that swept a good, talented athlete down a dark road towards performance enhancing drugs, it is instructive to look at Fagan and Reale and compare the trajectory of their careers. They both arrived in Providence with serious reputations. Fagan had run a 3,000m in 8.12.17 at Santry in 2001 and alerted the athletics world to his potential. Reale was a highly-regarded 1,500m runner and 3,000m steeplechaser. For various reasons, injuries and bad luck among them, neither would fulfill his potential.

You look back now and see the course their lives took, the tough choices they faced and the decisions

they made. There's an old George Jones song that deals with the dilemmas we face at critical moments in our lives. 'I've had choices since the day that I was born, there were voices that told me right from wrong. If I had listened, no I wouldn't be here today. Livin' and dyin' with the choices I've made.'

And Reale and Fagan made theirs. When he graduated, Reale faced the same situation that would ultimately cause Fagan much grief. Without a working visa he couldn't find employment so he figured the best course of action was to return to Limerick for a few months and contemplate the rest of his career. At home, he acquired a new coach, ran in the European Indoors and, when it came to the crunch, he decided that staying at home was his best long-term move.

In 2007, Reale suffered an injury which, effectively, put paid to his Olympic ambitions and he approached another fork in the road. The path he took brought him back to college to study PE. It was another outlet away from running and something to focus his mind on the future away from the track. And Fagan? In almost every respect, he faced the same hard questions and took the opposite road every time.

"I think for Martin, having visa problems and not being able to work took away his escape route from athletics," Reale says. "If you talk to any athlete they'll tell you when running is going well everything is fine. But if it's gone and all you have in your life is running, you're going to find yourself in a rough place. And that's when you'll see agents or the people in Athletics Ireland or the sports council running towards the trenches. That's the harsh truth."

With Fagan there didn't seem to be any outlet other than his life as a professional athlete. Over time the sheer joy that enticed him to the sport as a kid in Mullingar would have been gradually eroded by the reality that running is what he did for a living and his well-being depended too much on what he did or didn't do on the track. Once he kept performing everything would be fine, but where was the contingency plan if and when things took a wrong turn?

In 2007, Fagan left Providence for Flagstaff, a small high-altitude town in Arizona, and came under the guidance of the well-regarded Greg McMillan. Under McMillan, Fagan successfully made it to the 2008 Olympics but he left the Games an injured, unhappy athlete and, less than two years later, he had left McMillan's group and, effectively, set out on his own. His sense of isolation was virtually complete.

"It's so much easier in a team sport," says Reale. "You have team-mates, selectors and managers to help you. As an athlete your coach is in the background, but the next day it's really just you and your thoughts. Only Martin can say why he went to Flagstaff. That was his decision to make. But I can't help thinking if he'd been in Providence and there'd been people around him like me or Mary Cullen who could have spotted the signs early and been in a position to help. The Irish are a very tight community there."

Whether Athletics Ireland should accept at least partial blame for the circumstances Fagan found himself in is, at best, a moot point. He lost his grant at the end of 2010 simply because he failed to meet the funding criteria and Irish athletics officials would quietly dispute the assertion that insufficient support was offered to the athlete during his low period last year. And, as Fagan himself acknowledged last week, it was largely through the choices he himself had made that he ended up where he was.

Ultimately, of course, there's a broader issue to Fagan's story than athletics. The portrait he painted of a man reduced by his misfortunes to browsing the internet looking for ways to end it all is a symptom of a wider malaise where people -- mostly males -- find it difficult to communicate their problems. You can hardly blame athletics officials in Ireland for not guessing the extent of his problems when those closest to him seemed none the wiser.

In November, on the eve of the Chicago marathon, Fagan talked to Kevin Selby of the athletics' website, Flotrack. To Selby he seemed bright and optimistic at all stages of the interview. Fagan had been making regular trips to see a doctor in Phoenix and his tendon problems had cleared. "My first race in three years 100 per cent healthy," he beamed. "All my issues figured out." He talked hopefully about achieving the A standard and of having eight months to prepare for London.

It went spectacularly wrong, of course. Fagan blazed a trail for 40km, seemingly on target for a 2.11 finish (four minutes inside the Olympic qualifying mark) but dramatically dropped out, complaining of exhaustion, with little more than a mile to go. "He could have walked to the finish and still made it," said his coach Keith Kelly last week. "That destroyed him mentally and physically."

According to Fagan, Chicago was the tipping point that led him into the cold embrace of EPO and the shame of a two-year ban. It seems clear too that vigilant anti-doping authorities would have seen Fagan's run, an eye-catching performance if you discount the finish, and concluded that he might be worth a visit. Even if clean at that point, any experienced and right-thinking athlete would surely have anticipated it.

Fagan's account of how he sourced the drugs through the internet and injected himself in a friend's apartment in Tucson is, in all probability, far from complete. So soon after he had been alerted about the positive test, it would have been unreasonable to expect it. Perhaps, in time, he will fill in the gaps and it would help our understanding of drugs in sport if he did, but we should remember too that there is no obligation on the athlete to do so.

The sadness of his situation is compounded by the fact that, in all other respects, there was an honesty and innocence about Fagan that made him easy to like. Remember in 2007 when he was returning home after a race in Spain and admitted to US immigration officials that he had been away competing, a confession which led to his visa being temporarily revoked. Instead of inventing a story, Fagan simply told the truth and paid the price.

In 2010, he decided not to fly home for the National Championships and ended up not being selected on the Ireland team for that year's World Championships. That effectively cost Fagan any chance he had of retaining his grant. Again, he could have concocted a story -- a slight strain, a bad head cold, anything -- but he opted to tell the truth and, in the process, soured his relationship with his own governing body.

None of that was of any use to Fagan when the doping authorities weighed up his case last week, but it does help to explain why his personal account of his troubles elicited such an outpouring of sympathy among the Irish athletics community and why there was a general willingness to accept his version of events without a rigorous analysis of the story or how the details stacked up.

It suggests too that when his ban expires in 2014, Fagan may find an athletics community open to the idea of his return to the fold, although that is impossible to predict with certainty. There are those like Reale who will be happy to welcome him back while others, although sympathetic to his plight, will take a dimmer view. "I feel that anyone who takes drugs in sport should get a life ban and that includes Martin," says the cross-country runner, Vinny Mulvey. "And Martin knows that. On a human level he needs help and I'd be there for him as a friend. Sometimes there are more important things than sport."

We should acknowledge too that, despite Fagan's sad story, the support structures around athletes are far better than they were a few years ago and options that weren't available in Greally's day, or in Fagan's day for that matter, are much more plentiful now. The notion that you have to leave Ireland to be a serious athlete has no currency anymore. Talented athletes don't leave these shores in their droves only to be never heard of again and that is a positive development.

Nor is it true that Irish athletics needs to feel a sense of shame about unmasking another positive dope test. Three Irish athletes have received bans since testing began and, if that feels enough for a small country, there really isn't much point in comparing that to other countries which, per head of athlete population, may have returned fewer positive tests but which, ahem, haven't as yet embraced such a rigorous anti-doping policy.

In the end, whether you choose to believe that Martin Fagan took drugs as a desperate plea for help, hoping to be caught, the truth is the system still had to catch him and, without any cause for celebration, it was seen to be doing its job. Beyond a profoundly sad human story of a good man taking a wrong turn in his life, that story needed to be told too.

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