Sunday 21 January 2018

Some questions need to be asked

The world's greatest sportsmen are linked to drugs stories, writes John O'Brien

F OUR years on, the anger in his voice still sticks in the memory. A gentle conversation had turned to the topic of drugs in sport and the man, a professional cyclist, sighed and explained how the subject wearied and frustrated him in equal measure. It wasn't the fact that it arose at all that raised his ire. You couldn't be a cyclist and not expect to talk about doping every day of the week. It simply came with the territory.

What irked him was the case that had broken out in Spain a couple of months previously. A Spanish doctor called Eufemiano Fuentes had been arrested by police under suspicion of treating athletes with illegal drugs. Fuentes was the team doctor to Kelme, a Spanish pro cycling team, but his sporting influence spread far wider than that. He was linked to more than 200 athletes and, when they nailed Fuentes, Operation Puerto became big news.

The cyclist wasn't angry that his sport was being dragged through the mire again. If the scandal helped clean it up, then it had to be welcomed. The problem was that when the names of athletes linked to Fuentes started to be revealed, they all happened to be cyclists: Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton among them. In all, 34 cyclists would have their identities revealed. What of the 170 or so who remained nameless? Why, he wondered, should they enjoy the privilege of anonymity?

It seemed a valid point well made. Fuentes willingly acknowledged his involvement with football and tennis players, yet we don't know who these might have been. The cyclists, on the other hand, were fair game. Was there one law for cycling and another for other sports? While cycling was, belatedly, getting a tenuous grip on its doping problem, were other more high-profile sports guilty of sweeping theirs under a ready-made shagpile?

It is an interesting question to ask at a time when the two greatest sportsmen on the planet are, in one way or another, linked to drugs' stories: Tiger Woods through his link to the Canadian doctor, Anthony Galea, currently under investigation by the FBI; Lionel Messi through the course of human growth hormone treatment he underwent before and after he joined Barcelona.

At his eagerly awaited press conference at the Masters last Monday, Woods faced 46 questions from the assembled throng. Four of these concerned his relationship with Galea and, if his answers weren't unduly evasive, we learned little more than we already knew. We know enough to be sure, however, that, however Woods fares on the golf course, the questions aren't likely to disappear any time soon.

We know that the trouble started when a car driven by Mary Anne Catalano, Galea's assistant, was stopped by border police in Buffalo and found to be in possession of a quantity of human growth hormone and Actovegin, a controversial drug though not on the WADA banned list. Galea claimed the hgh was for his personal use and that he had never doped athletes.

We know too that Woods, unhappy with the speed of his recovery from surgery to his damaged knee in 2008, was referred to Galea by his management team. Galea visited the golfer's house in Florida on four occasions last year for Platelet-rich plasma therapy (PRP), a treatment that isolates plasma from red and white blood cells and is then used to treat the damaged area, boosting the healing process.

Despite attempts to portray it as some kind of medical quackery, there doesn't seem to be anything particularly controversial about "blood spinning".

Some doctors openly question the value of the treatment but athletes who have worked with Galea offer ringing endorsements of the procedure. Right now, you could argue, Woods is guilty of nothing more than an association with a doctor who is likely to be charged with operating without a licence in the US.

The question of Galea and illegal drugs might have slipped off the radar entirely but for the unfortunate entry of Alex Rodriguez into the story last month. Baseball is bigger news than golf when it comes to doping and, with a known steroid cheat in the mix, the story moved forward. Rodriguez denies taking drugs from Galea but the secretive nature of the treatment and his tardiness in co-operating with agents makes him seem slippery and evasive. Woods, whether he likes it or not, is caught in the collateral fire.

Not that Woods or his team seem particularly concerned about Galea. Asked on Monday why he hadn't moved earlier to scotch rumours that he had taken PEDs, Woods replied that he hadn't done any interviews and nobody had asked. Perhaps if he wasn't so embroiled in personal scandal, Woods might be more engaged by the doping questions but that is, at best, a moot point.

Maybe Woods and his advisors have simply reasoned that golf and major drugs' stories just don't send the sporting world into a tizzy, even when the world's No 1 is implicated. It is less than three years, after all, since the sport reluctantly embraced the concept of drug-testing and, to date, only one golfer in the US has been caught.

The fact that he is currently suing the PGA will hardly enhance the ruling body's appetite for such fights.

Lionel Messi is another story. Similar principle, though. It is well known that when Messi joined Barcelona as a 13-year-old kid in 2000, he was been treated for a HGH deficiency, which his family could no longer afford in his native Argentina. Before the treatment started, Messi measured just 50 inches in height. Without HGH, he could not have entertained a career as a professional footballer.

The issue is less about the nature of Messi's treatment than our collective stomach for asking hard questions about it.

Particularly when the subject is possessed of such captivating beauty and humility that we are instantly transported back to a time when we imagine the sporting arena and the stars who graced it to have had a certain purity that, along the way, has been lost. If the kid needed a gentle guiding hand, well surely we can live with that.

In the biography of Messi by Luca Caioli, the doctor who diagnosed the footballer's HGH deficiency hears Messi described as a "lab rat" and is incensed. "The hormone deficiency and its treatment are nothing more than anecdote," says Dr Diego Schwarsztein. "What really matter are the boy's footballing skills."

It is a widely ingrained notion: in a sport where technique and skill are prevalent, doping is unlikely to be a major issue.

But you can ask questions about Messi if you are inclined. We know the first HGH injections started in 1998 when he was 10. What isn't clear is when they stopped. A standard course of treatment is said to last up to six years, by which time Messi had already made his senior debut for Barcelona. And even if the treatment was ethical on a human level, is there a boundary when dealing with a talented athlete and where exactly does it begin and end?

The way he is going, however, Messi will establish himself as the greatest footballer we have seen and no one will give a fig about HGH. They'll savour every moment of the most beautiful team since Pele's Brazil and forget that some of those players, whose identities we'll probably never know, were once linked to an errant doctor by the name of Eufemiano Fuentes. Perhaps the angry cyclist was right about one thing: we have the stomach for some battles but not for others.

"Did you learn anything?" asks the dead man in the tackiest ad ever made. Only that the age of innocence in sport, if it ever existed at all, is well and truly gone.

Sunday Independent

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