DERVAL O'ROURKE: Time to confront ugly side of sport

Sport, like most things, has both good and bad sides. It’s tempting to get caught up in the magical side but it’s naïve to think it’s all wonderful. Ugly issues like drugs in sport exist.

A few days ago, I watched “The Armstrong Lie” and later I listened to Irish athlete Martin Fagan being interviewed about his drugs ban and his possible return to athletics.

There are very few similarities between the Fagan and Armstrong stories but they’ve one thing in common, performance-enhancing drugs. Both are classed as drug cheats.

Martin Fagan is a talented distance runner who ran a world-class 60.57 minutes for the half marathon, breaking John Treacy’s national record.

Two years ago, he tested positive for Erythropoietin or EPO, a glycoprotein hormone that controls red blood cell production. Now Fagan has served his ban and he’s free to compete again, if that’s what he chooses to do.

He recently did a radio interview about his experience and listening to him, I formed an impression of a talented guy, who found the sport extremely tough.

He spoke of his battle with depression, his injuries and the financial stress that comes with being a professional athlete.

I don’t know Fagan very well, I was on some teams with him and he always seemed a genuinely lovely guy.

I identified with some of what he described. The sport is tough, the injuries are brutal and you only get paid if you are running well. His experience of depression evoked sympathy from me because I see how susceptible athletes are to depression but I don’t believe this should excuse doping. Taking EPO was a choice, something he consciously decided to do. But I sympathise with him because of some of the different events that led him down that path.

The flip side, is that those very twists and turns he faced are all part of the sport. It can be a tough job but we choose to do it. No one forces us to be professional athletes. I have had funding issues, lost sponsors, lost kit deals and have had major surgery. On the worst days the question rattling around my head is “Do I really want to do this? Maybe it’s time to retire”. For me the exit door is retirement, it has never been taking drugs.

The Fagan case is tough because as he’s Irish we’ve had access to his story and most people feel sympathy for him. Martin Fagan, Lance Armstrong and Nevin Yanit have all committed doping charges but in my view, they’ve committed a crime in differing degrees. I think the level of deception is an important consideration. Surely Lance is the ultimate cheat given how he lied for over a decade?

Armstrong was once seen as a superhero, both through his cancer battle and triumphs on a bike. However, watching the film, I became agitated by the extremes of his drug taking and deception. He used his power to bully and intimidate all around him while treating those who dared to question him with disdain. The damage he has done has been great and to many, many people.

Meanwhile, Fagan’s interview illustrates a different kind of drugs cheat. He’s someone who got lost and ended up making a terrible decision. It’s hard not to feel sad for Fagan. As a person, I feel sorry for him. Few of us lead a life free from flawed decisions, hearing his interview doesn’t make me want to condemn him. Life is full of second chances. Outside of himself and those closest to him, I would hazard a guess Fagan has caused a small amount of hurt to others. His main achievements came long before his drug test failure. There’s nothing to suggest his previous results were tainted. But as someone who has lost medals to drug cheats it’s difficult for me to reconcile the decision to take drugs in the context of someone having a hard time. I’m waiting for a medal from the European Indoors last year due to the winner, Nevin Yanit, failing a drugs test. This is the same person who beat me by a dip to be European Outdoor champion. No matter what the outcome of the investigation into her performances, it won’t be enough to get back the moments that are stolen from clean athletes.

The difference between Yanit and Fagan is that the effect of Yanit’s drugtaking has had a major impact on other clean athletes. Fagan’s story is that he took drugs once and got caught, but what if he was never caught? Would it have stopped? No one knows this except Fagan. I think choosing to take drugs and going on to prosper is a way of stealing from people.

Imagine coming fourth in a major championship final and walking off the track with serious doubts over one of those ahead of you. That’s the position I have been in. It’s easy to forget the damage done to the clean athletes. Whether or not Fagan returns to competitive running is something that he will have to decide. The laws governing the sport means he can come back to racing. He has served his sentence.

Regardless of the level of deception and hurt caused I don’t think that two years is a long enough sanction for any drug cheat but right now that is the law of the sport. The world of performance enhancing drugs will continue to be a part of sport and drug cheats come in different forms. I’ll probably continue to feel irritated, saddened and hard-done-by, when I spend any time thinking about that part of the sport but for the next while, I’ll go back to thinking about the good parts. The many hard-working and talented athletes set to compete in the Irish Indoor Championships next weekend will be a great reminder of the magical side.


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