Wednesday 19 June 2019

Paul Kimmage: Dangerous obsession with size creates bigger need for answers

The reputation of a particular sport should not determine the level of suspicion, writes Paul Kimmage

Rugby's obsession with size is shown in the statistic that more than a third of all British sports men and women currently serving doping bans in the UK are rugby union players. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Rugby's obsession with size is shown in the statistic that more than a third of all British sports men and women currently serving doping bans in the UK are rugby union players. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

"A couple of years ago I was told by a fitness trainer that an eight-week cycle of steroids could change my career. In his experience, a player that did just one cycle would maintain 60 per cent of the gains he achieved.

"To put this in perspective, and both these examples are very achievable, this is what I could have 'achieved':

"If I gained 5kg of muscle mass - even when I went off the drugs - I would keep three of those kilos. If I increased my explosiveness which allowed me to reduce my 100 metres time by one second, even if I never did another cycle of steroids, I would remain 0.6 of a second faster.

"These numbers may not seem enormous but to gain that type of edge could mean the difference between being a good player and a star, a provincial representative or an international. And we know what else would change. The base salary, the access to endorsements, image rights. Without exaggerating, the difference could mean being a journeyman or a rugby millionaire." - Paul Dearlove, former Scottish international and captain of Pau, February 2009

Five months ago, on the afternoon of June 27, Jacques Servat entered the 17th chamber of the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris, raised his right hand and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about his experiences with the England rugby team at the 2007 World Cup.

Servat, a captain with a special forces unit of the police ("le Groupe d'Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale), was appearing as a witness in the trial of Laurent Benezech, the former French international rugby player being sued for defamation by Provale, the professional rugby players union, and 134 of its players.

Servat had spent eight weeks with England during the 2007 World Cup, and had been invited by the court to recount his experiences of escorting the defending champions through the highs (the defeat of Australia and France) and lows (the defeat to South Africa) of the tournament.

One story in particular was of interest. It happened on the day after the final when a farewell ceremony was organised and his officers were presented with some gifts (signed jerseys and kit) by the team. One of them, a gym-rat, had spent hours discussing fitness with a member of the England staff and was given some food supplements the team had used during the tournament.

At first glance, the only unusual thing about these supplements was that they were "made-in-the-USA" but Servat soon discovered that they were different to any of the protein powders available in France. His officer, the gym-rat, had put on 14 kilos of muscle in 10 weeks and needed a new uniform.

It was rugby's obsession with size - big is beautiful - that had landed Benezech in court. Fifteen months earlier, on the evening of March 2, 2013, he had driven home one night after a game in Paris, shaken by what he had seen.

"C'est pas normal."

This was not the sport he loved.

"C'est pas normal."

This was not the game he'd played.

"C'est pas normal."

How were these guys so big?

Two weeks later, when he had formed an opinion and expressed it to a newspaper, the writ hit the fan. In the months that followed, he spent hundreds of hours and thousands of euros compiling evidence for the case. His first call was to Damien Ressiot of L'équipe, whose brilliant work had exposed Lance Armstrong in 2005.

Ressiot had good news and bad; the good was that he knew a lot and was prepared to help; the bad was that the 'Omerta' in rugby was worse than anything he had experienced in cycling.

Their starting point was a crossover between the two sports and a doctor called Herve Stoicheff, a student of the late Francois Bellocq, whose theories on "hormonal rebalancing" had fuelled successive French cycling teams and champions since the 1970s.

Stoicheff preferred rugby and was team doctor at Brive when they defeated Leicester in the final of the 1997 Heineken Cup. Three years later, he was sanctioned by the Medical Council for having prescribed a multitude of different products - vascular, arterial, heptatic and respiratory - to 33 healthy Brive players. Some were juniors at the Academy.

If Stoicheff was the sport's most popular doctor - he treated players from Bordeaux to Paris - Alain Camborde was its most popular trainer. At one stage, the 50-year-old from Pau had a client list of over 50 players, most of them internationals. His "dossier de presse" from 2009 makes interesting reading.

2003: Alain Camborde is convinced of the necessity to use food supplements in the physical preparation of sportsmen. He is one of the first to install a programme of nutrition and weightlifting for rugbymen like Damien Traille, Sebastien Tillous-Borde, Imanol Harinordoquy, Jerome Thion, Peio Som . . .

He has been saying it for ten years: "Nutrition is 50% of preparation."

2004: He's earning credits and working with Pau, Bayonne and some top-class sportsmen and players from the Top 14.

2007: He is invited to supervise the physical preparation and nutrition of the Argentinean Pumas for the World Cup. He leaves every week and moves from club to club working on the physical preparation of players like: Patricio Albacete, Juan Martin Hernandez, Mario Ledesma, Agustin Pichot, Rodrigo Roncero. "It's an honour for me to prepare this team," he says.

2009: He decides to commercialise his own range of food supplements under the brand name 'Physicoach Nutrition'.

But four years later, in May 2013, he was suddenly out of fashion when a newspaper (Sud-Ouest) reported that he was being investigated for the "importation and possession of prohibited goods and illegal practice as a pharmacist having, together with three other people, possessed, handed over, distributed or passed on around 30 doping products."

A month later he was given a three-month suspended prison sentence from the criminal court in Pau and fined €1,000. He was also ordered to pay €2,000 in compensation plus interest to the National Order of Pharmacists.

Felipe Contepomi, the former Leinster and Argentinean outhalf, was one of a number of prominent sportsmen questioned by Jean-Jacques Lozach that summer during a French Senate hearing on the efficiency of anti-doping:

Lozach: "A fitness coach, Monsieur Alain Camborde, was charged with illegal practice as a pharmacist and with endangering the lives of others. He was a fitness coach to the Argentine team in 2007. Did you know him?"

Contepomi: "As far as I know our training was undertaken by American coaches. Where is he from in France?"

Lozach: "From Pau."

Contepomi: "Yes, Alain, that rings a bell, from Patricio Albacete's club. But he definitely wasn't working in any official way with the Argentine team. It's true that some players take supplements which have been supplied by individual coaches. If cases of taking doping products are admitted, I maintain that very severe sanctions should be taken."

Two months ago, on September 26, three judges at the Palais du Justice in Paris decreed that Laurent Benezech had acted in good faith and ruled against Provale.

Two weeks later, on October 14, the Associated Press reported that an investigation by an anti-doping task force in Kenya had revealed that steroids had been found in supplements given to players on the national rugby sevens team.

The task force, led by Moni Wakesa, had noted "a concoction they (the coaches) gave players to drink before the beginning and end of training" and that the players would stop taking the supplements four days before competing.

Two weeks ago, Paul Kelso, the sports correspondent for Sky News, reported that more than a third of all British sports men and women currently serving doping bans in the UK are rugby union players.

"One promising player currently banned, Sam Chalmers, the son of former Scotland flyhalf Craig, told Sky News that young players are under pressure to build muscle in order to compete, tempting some into using supplements containing banned substances.

"In one case a player from Nottingham admitted importing human growth hormone. In another a Devon county age group player pleaded guilty to using testosterone.

A range of steroids are also among the drugs identified by UKAD (the UK anti-doping agency), with many of the players claiming they tested positive after taking supplements intended to help them build muscle."

Chalmers, 20, was banned for two years in 2013 after failing a test administered by the International Rugby Board (IRB) while preparing for the Under-20 World Cup. He told Sky News he took a supplement after coming under pressure from coaches to get heavier.

A day after Kelso's report, Benezech sent me an email: "My God! Time to wake-up England."

And Ireland? Be honest, do you really want to know?

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