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Running down a blind alley

On one level I have a lot of sympathy for Martin Fagan. And on another I have none at all.

I have a lot of sympathy for Martin Fagan because no one in sport works as hard as a top-class long-distance runner. They spend year after lonely year doing several hundred miles a month, pushing themselves into physical territories which most other sportsmen would quail at approaching. Their calling requires a combination of physical toughness and mental fortitude possessed by a very small minority of the sporting population. They're the fittest men and women in the world.

And Martin Fagan was a top-class distance runner. He ran a phenomenal 60.57 for the half marathon in The Hague three years ago, he ran a 2.14.06 marathon to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, he was a European finalist in the 10,000m and he was a tremendous competitor in road races, clocking 29.35 to finish third in last year's Great Ireland 10K for example. He might well be the fittest Irishman on the planet.

You don't get to where Martin Fagan got without a tremendous amount of hard work and character. That's why, following his two-year ban for using EPO, nobody should dismiss his past achievements with that old flip line, "It was all drugs of course." In his day, he did a lot to make his home town of Mullingar and the rest of us proud.

That's level number one. Level number two presents us with the story of an athlete who, like many athletes before him, tried to take a short cut towards success. Martin Fagan cheated in an effort to gain an illegal advantage over his rivals and he got caught.

Now, I'm not going to get all Old Testament about this. We're talking about a young man, 28 years old, who has dedicated countless hours to his sport and yielded to temptation. It's easy to moralise but who among us hasn't done something they've later been ashamed of? Few lives are ethically spotless if placed under the microscope.

My problem with Martin Fagan isn't so much to do with his resort to illegal methods but with his reaction after being caught. Because I find that Fagan's putatively heart-rending claims about being driven into the arms of EPO by depression have left with me with less rather than more sympathy for his plight.

I've written quite a bit in this column on the necessity for sport and society to face up to and tackle the problem of depression among its practitioners. It's a very serious issue. And that very seriousness is why Martin Fagan shouldn't have said last week that depression drove him to take EPO.

I have no reason to doubt the truth of his testimony concerning his mental state. But the fact is that the time to talk about your struggle with depression is not when you've just been caught bang to rights in an act of wrongdoing. The time to talk about it is when you've dealt with or are dealing with the problem. Otherwise it just comes across as an excuse. You might not mean it to sound like that but that's how it reads.

It's customary when a sportsman reveals their problem with drink or drugs or depression or gambling to make pious noises about how their revelation enables society to face up to the problem and provides a source of strength for their fellow sufferers. But it is possible for a high-profile confession to actually do a disservice to the public perception of the problem. The likes of myself are always giving out about how depression isn't treated with sufficient seriousness by the general public. But one of the reasons why it isn't is that the general public think depression is too often used as a handy get-out clause for unacceptable behaviour. This leads to cynicism about the illness which means that the genuine sufferer can end up in the same boat as the guy who actually does have 'flu on a Monday morning or the child whose homework really has been eaten by the dog.

That Martin Fagan suffers from depression shouldn't be enough in itself to close down debate about his actions. For one thing it doesn't follow that the disease made him take EPO. In an interview with Fagan last week it was said that the runner "always knew this would end his career," that he could have dodged the drugs test if he wanted and that taking EPO was his "exit strategy." "This was my way out," said Fagan who added that he feels much better now that he's quit running. Fagan also claims that he only took prohibited drugs once in his life and that "by a crazy coincidence" he was tested 24 hours later. Make of that what you will.

This seems a somewhat roundabout way to get a lay-off. If he was in the pits of despair, surely the thing to do was to take a break or retire altogether. Suppose the drug testers hadn't done their job properly and he'd been forced to continue? He might have had to suffer all the way through the London Olympics.

The 'I was actually hoping to get caught' justification is a tried and trusted one. It's what the serial philanderer says when the other half catches him on top of the au pair, it's what the alcoholic says when he's drunk his way out of another job. But usually this realisation only dawns on them when they've been caught. Otherwise, the former would invite his conquests home for dinner with the wife and the latter would plonk a bottle of whiskey up on his desk at work and offer the boss a glass. There aren't too many wrongdoers who are really itching to get caught. That a man who wanted to quit running took a drug which would improve his running seems strange to say the least.

There's also the odd fact that Fagan's Mea Minima Culpa routine occurred in an interview with a journalist who showed no such sympathy when Cathal Lombard was banned for a similar offence several years ago.

In fact, when the Cork athlete returned to competition after a two-year ban and won the National Inter Counties cross-country title, the client in question bleated about

Lombard's tarnished pedigree in the most nauseating fashion and portrayed the runner as a pariah. Lombard retired soon after this vile personal attack. The wrath of the country's most self-righteous newspaper is a capricious thing.

Fagan, like Lombard before him, has been praised in the Irish media for owning up to his guilt. But there really isn't much glory in confessing to something after you've been caught red-handed. In this country we like to pontificate about the corruption of foreign athletes and imagine that our own are of superior character.

I can even remember a columnist opining in the run-up to one Olympics that we should be proud of our lack of success because most of the medallists were on drugs anyway. The truth is that we're no more or no less moral than any other people. An Irish cheat is the same kind of a cheat you find anywhere else. They're people who started off with the best of intentions before taking a gamble which didn't pay off.

I wish Martin Fagan good health in the future. But he'll never really know peace until he accepts that it wasn't depression or a lack of Athletics Ireland funding or injuries which made him take EPO.

It was the man in the mirror.


Sunday Indo Sport