Athletics is braced for further blows to its credibility today when the second part of the World Anti-Doping Agency report into Russian doping is revealed, but Derval O’Rourke knew all along she was being cheated, writes Cathal Dennehy.
When Derval O’Rourke looks back on her career, she can still pinpoint the moments, the medals, the memories, stolen from her grasp.
By the time she hung up her spikes in 2014, O’Rourke had amassed five major championship medals, but she left with a bitter taste, one left lingering by a sport poisoned with doping.
“I felt quite disposable when I retired,” she says. “I was just so disappointed in the sport, it had gone to the point where I almost started to hate it.”
At that point, it wasn’t hard to see why.
Rewind to July 2010, a warm night at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona, and O’Rourke is lining up in lane seven for the European 100m hurdles final. When the gun fires, she explodes from the blocks, attacks the first hurdles with precision, aggression, and begins to move clear of the field.
Over in lane three, though, an athlete in a red singlet with thick, hulking shoulders and quads is somehow going one better. O’Rourke attacks off the last hurdle, dips perfectly for the line, and clocks a lifetime best of 12.65. Turkey’s Nevin Yanit, however, gets there a blink sooner, in 12.63.
O’Rourke wasn’t drug tested after that race and, if memory serves her correctly, neither was Yanit, nor bronze medallist Caroline Nytra.
It was three years before Yanit finally tested positive for the banned steroid stanozolol, which means no matter how much O’Rourke feels like the rightful winner, her silver medal will never be upgraded to gold.
“I consider myself European champion,” she says. “I never believed in Yanit. I felt like I had won it at the time, and I’ll always look at it like that.”
Doping in sport is insidious; it sneaks and leaks a corrosive path down to places, people and eras far removed from the original scene of the crime. Just ask O’Rourke.
In September last year, she was delivered a package which contained a bronze medal from the European Indoor Championships in 2013. O’Rourke finished fourth in the final of the 60m hurdles in Gothenburg, but once again it was Nevin Yanit who took the title. Just weeks later, the Turk was finally busted, confirming what O’Rourke had known for years.
When she opened the envelope at her home in Cork, O’Rourke took one look at the bronze medal and read the accompanying letter, which informed her that, because so long had passed since the event, she would have to make do with a different, replica medal instead of the one she rightfully earned.
Four months on, it’s still in the envelope.
“It felt very hollow,” she says. “By the time the medal arrived, it was completely irrelevant. We became aware of her positive test three weeks after that race, but it still took two-and-a-half years.
Eight months earlier, O’Rourke was eliminated after finishing fourth in her Olympic semi-final in London. As she sat, distraught, in the athletes’ area, in walks Nevin Yanit, all smiles.
“I was sitting next to her and she turned to me and gave me a fist bump, because she made it through,” says O’Rourke. “I was looking at her going: ‘This is shambolic, you are so filthy,’ and that epitomised [the doping problem] to me.”
There’s more: In 2009, O’Rourke finished fourth at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin, the highest Irish finish on the track at that event in the last two decades.
One place ahead of her that day was Jamaica’s Dellorreen Ennis-London, who a year earlier was implicated in an investigation by Sports Illustrated which revealed she had received a shipment of human growth hormone at an address in Texas. Reported possession, though, is never enough to issue an anti-doping sanction, and Ennis- London has kept her medal to this day.
The thing that bothered O’Rourke most about doping in athletics — the thing that still bothers her — was the high expectations and lack of understanding about what she was often facing when she toed the line.
“There were loads of times I felt it wasn’t a level playing field and I felt, at home, you’re being asked to perform at a certain standard,” she says. “Decisions are made about grants and you’re sitting there going: ‘Do you actually understand the international landscape that Irish athletes are dealing with?’”
It’s not that O’Rourke believes Irish athletics is a paragon of virtue — since the turn of the millennium, four Irish senior internationals have been caught using performance-enhancing drugs — but, looking back, she just wishes all of her rivals faced the stringent anti-doping procedures she had throughout her career.
If they had, she couldn’t help wonder whether she’d have made the Olympic final in 2012. Because of her failure to do so, O’Rourke’s annual funding was cut from €40,000 to €12,000 the following year. As another Olympics that will be dominated by doping storylines looms, she hopes Irish athletes won’t face the same funding guillotine if their performances don’t set the world alight.
“People care about a massive doping scandal blowing up, but nobody cares when the grants are announced and people are cut,” she says. “That’s how athletes are surviving and suddenly their Olympic dreams are dead. I think if Irish athletes make Olympic and European finals, that’s an outstanding achievement and we should support that. They’re out there working their arses off in a really tough landscape.”
Over the past year, details of just how polluted that landscape has become were laid bare as scandal after scandal battered the already-bruised reputation of athletics, with evidence that senior figures at the IAAF took bribes in exchange for covering up positive doping tests. Those were whispers O’Rourke heard on the circuit for many years.
“I wasn’t hugely surprised,” she says. “I was surprised at the level of corruption. The people running the sport don’t live in an ivory tower and they should be hearing the same whispers. I always wondered why there wasn’t more being done. I’m not angry, because I chose to be in it and I was never in it with my eyes closed. All I could do was take care of my little space.
“I worry with [IAAF President] Seb Coe, though, that he’s not coming into this as a complete outsider. He’s been ingrained for a very long time, and the fact he’s seen nothing that would have made him react, I find that, at best naïve and he’s got his head in the sand; at worst, that he’s turning a blind eye.”
Though she maintains an interest in the sport, O’Rourke has moved on with her life since retirement. She took up a part-time role as player development manager with the Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association, and she’s also preparing her second cookbook, due for release in July.
In 2013, she married Olympic sailor Peter O’Leary, and the couple had their first child, Dafne, in August last year.
Would she encourage her daughter to follow her path?
“I wouldn’t stop anybody going into athletics, but it’s a very tough road for a clean, genuine athlete to follow their dreams,” she says. “I don’t regret for one moment that I did it. I was always so proud when I ran well, because I knew what it took and I knew how I did it, which is clean. I’d like to have been better, but I’m delighted how I did.”
She’s slowly finding her way back.
“I go out running now and I remember the whole point, which is that I absolutely love running. I can’t just see the problem; I see the good part of it as well. At its base, it’s an amazing sport.”
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