Sunday 24 March 2019

Olympic doping stems from boozy beginnings

Credit: Juan Mabromata, Getty Images
Credit: Juan Mabromata, Getty Images

Sean Diffley

Just 20 days to go to the Beijing Olympics and in this strange modern day era of pharmaceuticals it is interesting to note that the first Olympic drug suspension took place 40 years ago.

And it wasn't because of steroids, clenbuterol, methenolone, nandrolone or any of those bizarre concoctions.

It was drink. Yes, alcohol. And the enactor, feck it, wasn't Father Jack. It was a Swedish modern pentathlon competitor named Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall who got the old heave-ho.

I covered those Games in Mexico City in 1968 but nobody bothered to tell me about Liljenwall. We could have had a nice chat, me and Liljenwall, over a couple of tequilas and he could have solved for me the mystery of why he considered alcohol of value in the five pentathlon events of horse-riding, fencing, shooting, swimming and running.

The pentathlon tends to be a Swedish speciality and in the very first at the Stockholm Games in 1912, there were six Swedes in the first eight. And one American, well down the field. He was George Patton, later to become a famous World War II general.

But what let him down in Stockholm? His shooting. He was 21st out of 32. He was penalised for missing the target completely and he claimed, vigorously, that his shot had gone through a previously made hole. Good excuse, wasn't it?

Drug enhancements were banned in 1967, the year before Liljenwall was barred, but drink was in general use long before that.

Dorando Pietri, for instance, who collapsed near the end of the marathon in the 1908 Games in London, had been fed strychnine and sherry in the finishing stages. All it did was finish him, and Johnny Hayes, a man who worked in Bloomingdales in New York of Nenagh origin, won for the USA.

The strychnine and sherry ploy did work for Tom Hicks of the US in the marathon in 1904. But strychnine and sherry and brandy gradually lost their sheen and more sophisticated substances were discovered.

When Ben Johnson was caught in Seoul in 1988 he was the 43rd to be suspended. His A and B samples were so full of steroids that the containers nearly burst.

And the Tour de France and a couple more caught. The interesting feature is the action of the French police who charged into the cyclists' rooms, grabbed the drugs, steroids mainly, handcuffed the riders and stuffed them into the squad car and brought them to the police station.

It would seem that the French police have greater powers in handling those drug incidents than the police in other countries. Having drugs in your hotel room would not give the gardai the powers in Ireland to use such forceful means, at least as far as I am aware.

It would seem that the French, to whom the Tour is so important, have strengthened their laws and it would appear to be a successful policy, a policy to be welcomed.

And the sports performance of the week, which surely must be mentioned, was that incredible world pole vaulting record by the girl in the Rome athletics.

She's Russian, isn't she? And her record of 5.03 metres, or 16 feet six inches, was simply breathtaking.

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