Gerard Hartmann Interview: Have we lost the very essence of sport?

Gerard Hartmann has treated Olympic athletes in his Limerick clinic and he suspected some were doping. At the time, he blocked it out. Now innocence has been lost and maybe a lot more besides.

In Gerard Hartmann’s treatment room, there’s an array of sports memorabilia. Sonia O’Sullivan’s singlet. Signed photographs. All-Ireland winners’ boots. Running shoes which were used to set records at every distance, in every discipline.

What he’s showing me, however, are his training diaries from the 70s. The daily record of his mileage as a runner, before he became an internationally renowned physical therapist. When athletics was a dream, not a disappointment.

“You asked me about the Rio Olympics, but I think we have to go back further than the last two or three Olympics, back to the 70s, even. My diaries go back to that time, when I was really obsessed with athletics.

Not any more.

“Going back, I’d ask myself the moral and ethical question — can we admire these champions in the knowledge that they took drugs?”

Most of his early heroes have been linked with blood doping, before EPO had even arrived on the scene.

He talks about a high profile Olympic champion, a household name, he worked with.

“Looking back now, I wasn’t naive. I knew that in all probability, he was on drugs, but I still continued to service his needs, skeletally, with injuries, because the greater part of me respected a human tried to run as fast as he could.

“Ultimately I blocked out the fact that, in all likelihood, that they weren’t just doing it on hard work.

“Back in the early 90s, starting out as a physio and working with Colin Jackson. I would put my hand on my heart and say Colin Jackson never took drugs, but I couldn’t say that about some of the other sprinters.”

It leaves him wrestling now with his conscience.

“Should I have made a decision or said, in that knowledge, I refuse to see that person? That begs another question — should the Nikes, the adidases, the national governing bodies, support those players in getting over injuries? Because even if you take drugs, you’re still going to get injuries, given the intensity of the sport.

“I would put my hand up and say, wearing the hat of a skeletal therapist, that I chose to ignore or block it out.”

That’s in retrospect. Did it ever come up, over a breakfast table or in the car on the way to training? Did he ever ask an athlete if they were on something?

“No. As a professional, you block it out.

“I’d ask this question, and it goes back 10, 15 years — are we putting our sports stars on too high a pedestal?

“I’m 55 and looking back on 27 years as a physio, looking back with wiser eyes and thinking of what is facing kids now. I would say the huge honour that it is to be at the Olympics... I’d say there’s more to life.

“We have adulated sport too much. We’ve made it too glorious. The kid coming up in Limerick, who wants to play rugby for Munster or for Ireland and thinks that’s the be-all and end-all... have we lost the very essence of sport? Sport was never meant to be work, to be so high up.

“I won seven national titles in the triathlon, but I was working a nine to five job; I fitted my training around that. Nowadays you have athletes who aren’t even at the international level who train full-time and who have sponsors. Have we taken sport far beyond where it should be?

“Be it rugby, soccer, tennis, I think the joy is gone. All the athletes trying to make it to Rio, for instance: the stress they’re under professionally, personally; the stress on their family and their relationships, that is huge. They may make it, but qualifying comes at a huge price, not just in terms of money, but what they have to give up to make that Olympic team.”

For years, he’s taken athletes for a walk in the forest around Killaloe and a meal, to get into their heads. Some of the discoveries have surprised him.

“With one particular sportsperson I asked what he had in mind for life after sport, whether that was going back to college, what he’d do for money and so on. I got the shock of my life when I learned he had no idea what a mortgage was. He’s so insular in his sport, in what he does, that he had no idea.

“A few years before, I was helping a well-known Irish rugby international, and in a conversation, it came out that he’d never heard of Ronnie Delany.

“That’s common. The sportsperson is so wrapped up in his or her sport, they have no idea about life outside that. That shows the insularity.”

He can offer examples of the rounded athlete. Frank O’Mara was best man at his wedding: “He was a two-time world champion indoors and a three-time Olympian, but he also did a civil engineering degree, a business degree and a masters in law. He became CEO of a Fortune 100 company but also had a sporting career.

“Marcus O’Sullivan, another outstanding athlete, went to four Olympic Games, won three world indoor titles, now head coach at Villanova, following Jumbo Elliott’s footsteps. We spent four hours walking the forest last November, and the fellowship in sport between us is worth more than if either of us had won a gold medal.

“That’s the rounded picture. Two individuals who succeeded — but it was an era when it wasn’t professional.”

The reference to the rounded individual isn’t an accident. The emotional toll that elite sporting preparation takes spreads beyond the athlete: “It’s physically demanding, of course it is, but you can handle that. It’s the emotional and psychological cost that wears you down. It’s the mammy and daddy who’ve driven you to venues, or who’ve been at the swimming pool at five in the morning.

“That commitment isn’t just from the individual, it’s from the extended family. It’s from their relationship. I really think sport needs to pull back. It’s full on.

“The pressure... for most athletes, the training volume is very high up to three weeks before the Games, and then you taper. The goal for anyone is to peak for the Games, but those who have to qualify have to peak to qualification standard.

“Take triathlon. You have to get qualifying points the year before, so you have to be in good form the year before the Games to qualify, and then the year of the Games themselves in order to do well.

“It’s one thing, though, to qualify. You have to get on the plane and you have to make it to the starting line, because you’re not an Olympian unless you participate. Plenty of people were selected but didn’t make it, like Brendan O’Reilly, who qualified for the Olympics but wasn’t sent. Pressure, pressure, all the time.”

THE conversation drifts to the IAAF and Sebastian Coe. Hartmann makes a telling point about Coe and his peers. Explains why they might become out of touch. “At that level, you travel in a different way. You’re on a private jet, which leaves from an airfield, not an airport. Your passport is scanned and you’re pre-authorised to travel.

“You don’t pick up your own bag. You’re collected from home by a limousine which takes you to the airfield. You don’t have to think about the world out there.

“At the executive level of the IAAF and IOC, you’re in a totally isolated world. Coe goes to meetings in Monte Carlo. Do you know what happens at these meetings? I compare it to what happens to athletes and coaches at a meet. You walk out to the zone where the buses are and the bus takes you to the warm-up track.

“If it’s a busy day and everyone wants to be on the track, then it’s crowded there. You’re all standing up, trying to see your athletes.

“Next door is the VIP section for the IOC executive, the IAAF members. They’re brought in by Mercedes Maybachs. They don’t walk.”

He describes Coe’s position as a poisoned chalice.

“This isn’t recent. It’s like cycling — it goes back to the 70s, the 80s. I don’t care if you say Eddy Merckx was the greatest cyclist of all time, during his career he had some positive tests. I don’t care that Lance Armstrong won seven Tours de France. He cheated.

“The drug culture was there through the 1970s and 1980s. The problem was the policing of it wasn’t up to scratch. WADA wasn’t there. The IAAF governance at international level was corrupt.

“Go back to 1988, and Ben Johnson being made a fall guy. Don’t forget Linford Christie had a positive test and got away with it because of a ginseng supplement.

“So this is an old problem. You must look at it from the top down, because governance is the problem.”

“I ask myself now, looking back, was I aware that a good proportion of athletes were taking drugs? Yes I was. Did I do anything about it? No.”

He does point out the danger of tarring all athletes with the same brush, stresses that there can be clean athletes from dirty countries.

“You look at David Rudisha, Usain Bolt, and say: genuinely, freaks of nature. But you can’t say that about all the Ethiopian athletes, or Kenyans, or Jamaicans.

“So are we tarring Bolt with the same brush as all Jamaicans? Because I believe if the truth really comes out, I’d say Kenya, Ethiopia, Turkey, Jamaica will be hit.

“You can look at countries as being guilty but you will still have genetic freaks within those countries. I’d bet my house Bolt is clean, that Paula Radcliffe and David Rudisha are clean.

“When you really come to it, athletics carry the Olympics, and in London, Bolt, Rudisha and Mo Farah carried the Games.

“So, the question is whether Mo Farah is clean. I’ve known him since he was 14, and up to 2010, when I last worked with him, he was clean. I haven’t worked with him since, so I don’t know, but because of that, I can’t be as sure as I’d be of the others.”

For all his insulation from the real world, Coe remains the best hope for athletics, Hartmann believes, “as long as he sticks to his mandate”.

“In the IAAF, there was no accountability, no traceability and at the top, at the governance level, there was corruption.

“Athletics got into such a tangle over drugs, that it couldn’t find a way out. There was too much money involved, which is why I felt adidas withdrawing its sponsorship was the best thing that could have happened.

“If the IAAF were closed down, that would help. I’d suggest restarting the records now, giving lifetime bans to anyone caught doping... Coe’s the best man for the job, mostly because there’s no-one else.

“People might ask why he didn’t act, but I think the problem is in governance. I think if you’re on the executive, going to six meetings a year, you can’t really act, but now, in his present position, he can’t just talk the talk, he has to act.

“He needs to ban Russia, and not just for this Olympics. I’d ban them for two world championships in a row, until it’s clear that they’re transparent and that they have gotten rid of people who were involved in drug-taking.

“He knows the sport, he’s politically astute, I believe he’s respected — but he’s also the only candidate, really.”

We stroll out of Hartmann’s treatment room. He’s gloomy about the prospect of reform ahead of Rio.

“Those in governance will find a way to gloss over the inadequacies in order to declare the Games a success. Once we get to about April, the drug issue will fade.

“The virus in South America or some security issue will come to the fore, and the media will focus on that.”

So is he going to watch the Olympics?

“You know something? I don’t know if I’d be bothered.”


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