Suspicion should have no place in Olympics

One of the weirdest things for me, when I participated in the Olympics, was waking up the day after the opening ceremony going to the dining hall before training and seeing people with Olympic medals already hanging around their necks.

It was a stark reminder the show was on — and I was jealous.

The tension was gone from their faces and they glided around with their new jewellery.

“Bastards,” I used to think, with a smile. We had a whole week of stress ahead of us before even contemplating that feeling. You’d spend the rest of the week trying to ignore those relieved people fearing they might take away your focus or increase the likelihood of your mind being on the prize rather than the present moment.

This is the first Olympics since Barcelona ’92 I have been a spectator. I was involved in every Olympics since then and I have to say that I am loving it.

I am a big cycling fan. I love the Tour de France and all the pro classics races, so I really enjoyed the men’s road race.

Team GB, which was effectively the winning Team Sky from the Tour de France, were billed as favourites. The “Manx Missile”, Mark Cavendish was their trump card and they put all their eggs in one basket to deliver him to the finish for the sprint.

The race itself was fascinating stuff. There was a wide spread of nations in the 20-man group and the gold was up for grabs. Classic Olympics.

And then a sense of dread came over me. As two riders made a breakaway I noticed one was the controversial Kazakh, Alexandre Vinokourov, known in the cycling world as Vino.

He is a tough athlete, no question. One of the most feared riders in the peloton and known for his constant attacking. Vino is at the end of his career and this was his last race. I admire the way Vino races.

Unfortunately, Vino is a convicted doper. He served a two-year ban from 2007 to 2009 for receiving blood transfusions at the 2007 Tour de France. He was immediately kicked out of the race. Stories then began to emerge of a shady past involving Michele Ferrari, the Italian doctor who is currently banned for life from working with sportspeople. Tom Boonen, the Belgian cycling superstar who was also competing in the road race was quoted in 2007: “Vino is a dirty cheat, who should be banned for his whole lifetime.”

These words were echoing in my brain as I watched Vino battle it out with Rigoberto Uran of Columbia for the gold at high speed through Knightsbridge and down towards the finish outside Buckingham Palace.

I didn’t want Vino to win. It brought to the fore my own contempt of doping and people who decide to cheat in the sporting arena.

The Olympic road race was an epic event that lived up to it’s billing. It was raced to the death by the very best in the world. Vino, the canny racer that he is, outfoxed the Columbian to take Gold. I wanted to feel happy for him but I couldn’t. I wanted to feel happy for the millions of spectators who lined the route and watched on TV but I couldn’t.

I thought about the likes of Tom Boonen and how he felt as he crossed the line seeing Vino as the winner. A newly crowned Olympic champion should be celebrated and lauded, not met with mixed emotions. The mixed emotions stem from Vino’s tag as convicted doper.

It forced me to reexamine my attitude toward dopers. If someone makes a concerted effort to cheat and gets caught, that person has forfeited his or her right to compete in elite level sport again. It is a tough stance but I feel the punishment has to be harsh if people are really going to stop cheating. There is little to be gained in allowing someone cheat, give them a smack on the hand and a two-year racing ban and allow them to come back as if nothing ever happened.

Then I look at David Millar, the British rider, also in Saturday’s race, who cheated and served a two-year ban, just like Vino.

Since his return, Millar has been a staunch anti-doping advocate. He has written a raw account of his experiences of a doping culture and has sought redemption through sharing his experiences with other younger riders to steer them clear of doping. Millar is now an anti-drug pioneer in a sport with a full-on doping history.

I admire what he has done since he was convicted of doping. His true qualities as a person have come to the fore because he was caught and convicted. He accepted full responsibility and told the whole tragic story for the benefit of future cyclists. I truly believe he is a clean rider now but I still feel, within the Olympic context, he has forfeited his right to participate.

We all want to celebrate in the Olympic victories. Unfortunately when Vino raced like a champion last Saturday I didn’t celebrate.

Doubt and suspicion should have no place in the Olympics and tough punishments for cheats — life bans from Olympics and World Championships for the rest of their lives — is the only solution.

The Olympics Council need to be tougher if the uncomfortable silence from the crowd around the victory of a convicted cheat is going to be replaced by the roar of support for a winner they can truly believe in.

More in this section


Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox