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Sport’s inconvenient truth

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Let’s talk performance-enhancing drugs. Someone has to.

On the surface, it’s been a good couple of years for the doping authorities. Lance Armstrong was nailed, no major current sportsmen proven to be doping, and so few positives that they could point in the direction of EPO and steroids and say “that’s in the past”.

But is that really the case? Is top level sport clean, or do we just want it to be clean?

There’s a danger in finding out about doping in sport because it destroys the naivety of our default position as sport fans – that everyone at the top is clean and performing wonderful feats at the limit of human capability. We don’t like to ask questions because we’re afraid of what we’ll find out. Once you start asking doubting one feat, you end up doubting every single one.

For instance, Britain really enjoyed doing well and winning lots of medals at the 2012 Olympics. It’s easy to put this down to more abstract factors or things that are difficult to prove, like “better training regimes”, “better organisation” or simply “the home crowd factor”. No one is suggesting that British athletes doped. No one is even asking “why did that guy go from mediocre to brilliant?” or “how did she suddenly become so good?” It’s just taken as a given that British athletes did well because they’re great and their coaches are great and the fans are great. British athletes would never dope – we’re better than that. Really?

The doping question is that bad memory you want to suppress and pretend is gone but is actually still there lodged in the back of your brain. But now with Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell and Nesta Carter, three of the fastest men over 100m in history, testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, this is no longer something that we can suppress or say was happening in the past. It is still here – doping is almost certainly still widespread in sport. It’s a bleak reality, but the question isn’t “of the top sportsmen and women, who’s doping?” but “of the top sportsmen and women, who’s clean?”

The context of these latest big name positive tests is quite important in understanding the whole issue.

A decade ago, there was much competition for that same 100m crown. Americans dominated – Maurice Greene won in Sydney in 2000, a year after setting a new world record of 9.79 seconds. Between Sydney and Athens, Tim Montgomery appeared as a rival, edging Greene’s mark by 0.01 in 2002, before being charged with taking PEDs and eventually being stripped of his times. Nonetheless, the Athens games saw another American winner of the 100m with Justin Gatlin the surprise winner. Gatlin would go on to set a personal best of 9.77 in 2006, equalling the new record set by Powell in 2005, before he too was found out shortly after, the second positive test of his career (he managed to get out of the first in 2001 on the grounds that he was taking medication for attention deficit disorder).

Then Usain Bolt turned up and everyone stopped thinking.

Think about that for a minute – the world record went up incrementally over a period of 6 years; athletes were unable to go more than 0.01 seconds faster, and when they did, they were usually found out to be taking PEDs. Every single one of those guys has now either tested positive or, in Greene’s case (courtesy of Angel Heredia), been strongly linked to PED usage. And then suddenly this young Jamaican guy comes along and smashes their times, eventually doing a 9.58 – that’s two tenths of a second faster than the maximum known dopers were able to achieve. Over 100m, that’s a lifetime. By now, the Bloody Suspicious Klaxon should be blaring in your head.

But will you see the media discussing this? No. For them it’s best to continue the illusion, if it is indeed that. Build them up and then knock them down when it’s convenient. And besides, we shouldn’t speculate, should we? Innocent until proven guilty and all that…

But this is the problem. Montgomery never tested positive. Neither did former women’s 100m record holder Marion Jones who was in the same circle, Victor Conte’s BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative) operation. This also included numerous other leading athletes, including Dwain Chambers, as well as MLB stars, including record-breaker Barry Bonds, and NFL players. Very few of these actually tested positive. It was eventually proven through the law courts, not in the labs.

The golden rule of doping is that the dopers are always ahead of the testers. This has always been the case through history. The old adage that cheats never prosper is a lie – they often do. Many are found out but I’m sure there are some that will never be.

Focusing on athletics and in particular sprinting for a minute, why do we assume that they aren’t doping? Aside from blind faith, we’re told that testing is better and that the doping authorities are winning the fight. The evidence? Well, various stats and figures. And then Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell test positive. Admittedly this is only informed speculation, but dopers tend not to dope for a one-off, mainly because it doesn’t work like that – there’s a good chance Gay and Powell have been doing this all along.

If major athletes like them can slip through the net, how can we believe that testing is better and that the doping authorities are winning the fight? They have some nice heads to mount on their wall now but if anything this raises more questions about them than actually being something to celebrate.

Sprinting had successfully rid itself of the image of being riddled with doping on account of one athlete that we the lay people could all recognise as being great just by watching. Cycling is trying to follow this. Now that Lance’s head is on a spike and his competitors of the early 2000s have virtually all owned up too, and with no evidence of any major positives (i.e. anyone the public would recognise) in the last couple of years, the issue of doping is once again being brushed under the carpet by most of those in the mainstream media. And yet if you dip beneath the surface, as in athletics, there is plenty of speculation.

The problem is Team Sky are pretty much the US Postal Service/Discovery Channel team reincarnate. From the super-organised nature of the team to the style in which it goes about its racing there’s very little in it – in general, it’s the win-at-all-costs approach. But they have also learned from USPS – whereas Lance was always confrontational in his rebuttals about the doping questions (until it became obvious), Dave Brailsford and Sky have tried to be softer and more open. Having the might of News Corporation behind you probably helps too.

The arch-propagandists of the sport lead us to believe that doping in cycling tailed off after Lance retired, Floyd Landis was caught and the authorities “started taking things seriously”. Times went up, which is supposedly evidence of this (because, you know, it’s not like the teams would intentionally dope a little bit less to make it seem less obvious – isn’t that right, Alberto?). Sky are part of this new generation and have the support of Britain behind them, a nation that is starting to fully embrace the sport for the first time. But that may be the problem.

Imagine you’re in charge of investigating doping in cycling – do you want to be the one to upset the whole nation of Britain by outing Bradley Wiggins or Chris Froome as dopers, therefore implicating Team Sky, Dave Brailsford and, by extension, the enormously successful British cycling operation as a whole? Do you want to face the wrath of the British media? Do you want cycling to lose even more credibility?

Tyler Hamilton’s recent autobiography was a game-changer for a lot of people, including myself. The main issue that came out of it was not that USPS riders were doped up to the eyeballs – we knew that anyway. It was that the cycling authorities knew the USPS riders were doped up to the eyeballs. They knew that the dominant team in cycling was cheating, that every other team was cheating, and they brushed it under the carpet for the sake of viewing figures. Corruption, basically.

The concerning thing is there’s nothing to stop that happening again. There’s nothing to say that that’s not going on today – that Team Sky are doping, that the cycling authorities know about this, and that they are covering it up to keep the British and everyone else who believes in the Tour de France and the sport of cycling happy. Because money is king. And if you piss Murdoch off, there ain’t much hope for you…

And the implications of this aren’t just for cycling. They are for athletics, football, tennis, Formula One, the NFL – you name it. What the USPS case proves is that sport authorities are willing to allow their sport to become a charade, because people don’t care. The media dare not ask questions and most casual observers aren’t inclined to ask questions proactively. They prefer to watch believing what they see is real competition between clean sportsmen. They prefer not to question. After all, our natural instinct when watching sport is to believe what you’re seeing is genuine in the moment, and then question it later on.

Ultimately if the media revealed the whole thing to be a drug-fuelled sham, they would sell less newspapers or have less viewers. And even then, the Armstrong example proves that even if you provide hard evidence that a beloved sportsman is doping, half his fans won’t believe it anyway – there are plenty of people that still believe Lance was clean, while many others refused to believe it until the Oprah interview, despite all the evidence staring them in the face.

So where’s the motivation to reveal that the big names in a sport are cheating? The answer is there isn’t any – it would be counter-productive.

This isn’t a massive conspiracy theory – it’s logical. A sport will protect its own interests and get away with what it can. Keep them sweet by chucking in a couple of obvious positives here and there, and people will believe it – it’s more believable if there are one or two big names found out every so often than if no one was testing positive. Sports cannot be trusted to root out the cheats.

Usain Bolt will probably never test positive. Or, at least if he does, it won’t be until towards the end of his career as with Gay and Powell – by whenever he has outlived his usefulness to the sport. Does this mean he is clean? No. I believe there is enough evidence to suggest that you cannot trust the doping authorities and the sports authorities any more, so I feel entitled to be able to speculate. Sprinting, and by extension athletics as a whole, has to re-earn my trust again.

To me, it seems unlikely that anyone who has run below 9.80 seconds in the 100m is clean. It took an enormous doping effort to get from 9.79 to 9.78, let alone 9.58. Bolt is now essentially now 0.25 faster than the nearest athlete that might be clean. That’s a massive red flag in my eyes. He was a breath of fresh air when he burst onto the scene and we all fell in love with him, but the guy’s suspicious now.

Similarly, in cycling, I have suspicions about Team Sky. They may be open and relatively mild-mannered, but there are questions. Chris Froome has come from nowhere over the last two years to become superficially one of the best riders ever. His time climbing Mont Ventoux a few days ago nearly matched Armstrong’s, and his recoveries between stages are extraordinary. That’s not normal. That’s superhuman. And once you start using that word, alarm bells should be ringing.

If Team Sky are doping, that raises questions about the British Olympic cycling team, for which Brailsford is also responsible. If there are questions about the cycling team, by extension you have to look at other British athletes. The old “the British don’t dope, we’re too fair” trope is nonsense. Doping is not just for Eastern European women with hairy armpits – we passed that 30 years ago, and they were a convenient target even then. Nor can we just blame the Spaniards because of Operacion Puerto. A competitive sportsman or sportswoman who wants to win at all costs is without nationality.

Mo Farah. I ran home from the pub to watch him win his first gold last year. A few weeks later, I stumbled upon an athletics forum and many of those discussing there were convinced he was doping. I looked into it. His coach, Alberto Salazar, claims to be clean, but also likes to say he pushes the boundaries. Oh really? Couple that with Farah’s meteoric rise over the last couple of years, something that should always raise questions, and I’m now suspicious. And what about other British athletes? These are legitimate questions now, questions which need to be asked instead of being swept under the carpet with the implication that anyone who asks them is a tin-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist.

In the aftermath of Gay and Powell’s positive tests, 100m star Yohan Blake, 800m world record holder David Rudisha and 1500m Olympic champion Taoufik Makhloufi all withdrew from this summer’s World Championships in Moscow with “injury” or “illness”. Uh, hello? You don’t think that’s awfully convenient? Blake already has a positive test on his record. Is this thing on?

Barcelona’s astonishing football has raised questions, but not loudly enough to get above the sycophancy of the mainstream football media. Their endurance and recovery is exceptional – how they can play such an intensive style of football without getting tired seems superhuman. Then they were beaten to the La Liga title by Real Madrid, who were managed by a manager who at a previous club talked of “Dr Needles” and hinted at giving players “supplements” – look, I like Mourinho, but you can’t say his practices aren’t suspicious. And then Barca were beaten by Bayern Munich in the Champions League this year, whose club doctor has controversial methods and has worked with Tyson Gay and Usain Bolt…

But you won’t see this in the papers. Talk of doping in sport is left for the message boards and the occasional blogger. Bill Simmons’ exceptional article for Grantland earlier this year is one of the few to attack this from a different angle, instead of sticking to the safe, unquestioning “well none of them have tested positive so they must be clean, anyway let’s talk about something else” line.

Sport hides this. It bottles it up. But it’s only serving to make us look stupid years on down the line, when someone will inevitably break the secret and everyone says “oh how could we have been fooled? It should have been obvious.” The sports authorities will walk away with no damage – the burden of guilt and embarrassment is left not with those involved, but the innocent party, the viewers. We shouldn’t accept that. Nor should we accept counter-arguments like “everyone else was doping too” and “what’s so bad about performance-enhancing drugs anyway?” We are being lied to by everyone within that sport who knows what is going on.

Ask questions. Be suspicious. Don’t be afraid to speculate. Don’t be afraid to accuse. Don’t allow yourself to be bullied by those that say there is no evidence. After Armstrong, Gay and Powell, professional sport can no longer expect us to trust it.

Images used in the spirit of fair use. Because it’s important to be fair, isn’t it?

Written by James Bennett

July 18, 2013 at 15:56

Colin McRae

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Tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of the death of my first motorsport hero, Colin McRae. It still hasn’t sunk in.

Colin was a part of my life from late 1993 when I was just 2 years old when I discovered rallying when the RAC Rally appeared on television via the BBC’s Top Gear Rally Report – yes, I know, actual nightly coverage of rallying on terrestrial television. The two main protagonists that year were recently-crowned World Rally Champion Juha Kankkunen of Toyota, and a young McRae in the then-new Subaru Impreza, bidding to become the first British driver to win his home event since Roger Clark (who shared the same birthday) in 1976. It was a year of considerable snow and ice, which favoured the Finn, but McRae, the underdog and home favourite, took the fight to him and may well have beaten him but for engine problems in Grizedale Forest, where he had also been denied wins over the previous two years.

I was probably a bit too young to understand at the time, but my mother had taped the Rally Reports, and like all young children, I watched it again and again and again until I did understand – and what I understood was that McRae was the good guy, the hard-charging hero on whom all British hopes depended. There seemed like no other choice – he had to be my favourite.

So when the 1994 RAC came around, I wanted it taped again. This time, McRae was number 2 to team leader Carlos Sainz, who was trying to overturn the deficit to Toyota’s Didier Auriol, the RAC being the title decider. McRae dominated from the start. Sainz settled into a battle for 2nd with Kankkunen, a battle he seemed to be winning, while Auriol was beset by numerous issues over the first couple of days. But as Auriol recovered through the field, it looked as if McRae would this time be cost by team orders, with the need for him to slow to allow Sainz to win the rally and the title. However, a bunch of foolish spectators left some logs lying in the middle of a Mid-Welsh stage, and Sainz ended up in a ditch. The title was Auriol’s, the rally was McRae’s.

1995 saw a different scenario. McRae was now battling for the title with Sainz, bidding to become the first British World Rally Champion. It had been a close championship battle, with Kankkunen and Auriol battling with the Subaru pair until the penultimate round in Spain, where the FIA discovered Toyota had included an illegal turbo restrictor in the Celica GT-Four and were banned for 12 months. The drivers’ title was thus between McRae and Sainz, while Mitsubishi, led by Tommi Makinen and Kenneth Eriksson, could still snatch the constructors’ title from their Japanese rivals.

Fate tried to snatch the title away from McRae, but he was never going to be denied. Makinen lead early on but exited the fray early on day 2. A puncture in the notorious Kielder Forest cost McRae time to Sainz but he quickly made it all back up again, and eventually won comfortably. The young Englishman Richard Burns made it a 1-2-3 for Subaru.

After that, for me, rallying slipped off the agenda a bit in favour of F1, in part due to the fact that the RAC wasn’t part of the WRC in 1996, with all the top drivers electing not to take part. But in 1997, I was hooked again for two main reasons: firstly, McRae was back on the title hunt again, 10 points behind Makinen (who had won the title the previous year) with 10 points for a win; and secondly, because it was coming past my house – not quite literally but close enough.

I went up there to get my first taste of live forest rallying early on the third day on this, and stood opposite an s-bend in the road. McRae was first car through, after he ended the second day tied with Burns, now Makinen’s team mate at Mitsubishi bidding to prevent McRae from winning the rally. Out of the early morning gloom he came – first the noise, then the headlights, and then the car. And he went straight on at the s-bend. Luckily there was nothing substantial there, and he drove on, but he had lost crucial time. Every other car through that we saw negotiated it, including Burns, who was about to inherit the lead.

My dad then took me to the Resolven services – as we had stayed to watch many of the cars come through (back when there were over 100 entries as opposed to 30 – thanks a bunch, FIA), by the time we got there the Sun was up and the cars had done two more stages. I was quite pleased to find out that Burns had suffered a puncture in the third stage of the day, dropping him from 1st to 4th and handing the lead back to McRae, virtually guaranteeing him the rally.

And there he was – stood there in a light blue coat and a yellow Pirelli bobble hat being interviewed for the TV (again, this was shown on Rally Report that evening). I’ll never forget that – the first time I saw my hero in the flesh.

In the end, he won the rally of course, but Makinen finished 6th to pick up the point he needed to clinch the championship. From there on, it was downhill all the way – as with all romances, the initial euphoria gave way to a series of let-downs. In 1998, engine failure. In 1999, a crash. In 2000, a crash (not long after I’d seen him leave the Swansea services). 2001 was the worst, though – McRae was in a 4-way title fight with Sainz, Burns and Makinen, and my dad had booked tickets for the Thyssen Super Special stage in Cardiff Bay. But once again, McRae crashed – this time on the third stage, pushing too hard to open up an early lead.

It was Burns who took the title – the “other” British driver. It’s not that I didn’t like him, as he was a nice guy (as were all the other top drivers), but if you were a British rally fan at the time (and at this time, rallying was enormous in Britain, taking a similar role to cycling today), you had a choice between two camps – you were either a McRae fan or a Burns fan. As a youngster when McRae was at his peak, there was no contest for me. But after 2001, Burns was the big star, with a big money move to Peugeot. McRae had an inconsistent last year at Ford in 2002, before his big money move to Citroen. Neither driver won a rally (officially) for their French manufacturers, and both their full-time careers would end there: Burns, as we all know, was forced out of the sport by the illness that he would succumb to in 2005, while McRae was squeezed out by the new rules restricting manufacturers to two cars each, before his senseless death in a helicopter accident five years ago.

The word “tragedy” is used far too often today, but the fact that we have neither of them around today is definitely one. It has also destroyed British interest in rallying – we no longer have any top drivers in the WRC, a championship that has destroyed itself with rising costs, restrictions, cheap gimmicks and a series of poor choices of broadcaster. To find coverage of this weekend’s rally, you have to go to Motors TV or Welsh language channel S4C.

The loss of Colin in particular was enormous, because he was one of the great charismatic figures of rallying, the Gilles Villeneuve of the WRC. Though there were drivers more successful than him, he defined the sport, not only because he built a successful brand around his video games, and helped launch rallying to the US, but because he was the bravest and fastest of them all. The hardest of the hard-chargers – the greatest daredevil in modern motorsport, where the culture of consistency takes precedence and aggression is frowned upon.

Colin McRae will forever be a mythical figure. He let me down more than once, including in death. But it’s largely irrelevant – he is almost certainly still the greatest rally driver ever. Sebastien Loeb will probably forever be the best and most successful driver ever, but he will never match Colin for greatness. Give people a choice between which of the two they would rather have in their Fantasy World Rally Team, I should think most would go for McRae. I certainly would.

Written by James Bennett

September 14, 2012 at 18:40

Posted in Motorsport