My confession (for today, at least): I am a hopeless romantic when it comes to sport. Many of my earliest memories are of great Irish sporting moments, which is as good an indicator as any just of how enthralled and wrapped up in sport I can get and how I seemed to be just drawn into this world on an absurd level.
I can remember standing in the sitting room with my family cheering for Michael Caruth as he won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. I remember his face and the tears as the national anthem played out and the pride I felt, at 6 years of age, with no logical explanation to explain why I felt that way. Likewise, the memory of Wayne McCullough winning silver in the same year is indelibly etched on my brain.
I remember Sonia. Boy, do I remember Sonia. Sonia O’Sullivan at the 1993 World Championships, when I was just 7 years old, racing in the 1500m and 3000m finals. Having toiled and trained to an astonishing standard, Sonia had established herself as a world class middle-distance runner and went into both of these races as a favourite. I remember watching the 3000m race (I didn’t know it was 3000m at the time…) on the TV, as a trio of Chinese runners tore away from the bunch with unfathomable ease and left the rest of the field for dust, stealing gold, silver and bronze. Sonia came fourth. In a not dissimilar moment, Sonia took silver in the 1500m final, having been left 4 seconds behind by another Chinese runner Liu Dong. I was disappointed. I was seven – I wanted our girl to win first place, you know how it goes. Sonia was disappointed too, but with greater cause. These super dooper Chinese athletes had appeared with miraculous ability, smashed records all over the shop and disappeared very soon after.
I remember Sonia at the Sydney Olympics 2000, standing up in my sitting room alongside my parents, shouting at the tele as she bravely sprinted against Gabriela Szabo in the last lap of the 5000m, only to watch as the Romanian pipped her to second place, as she walked away with gold. I was so proud of Sonia. She was a magnificent runner, she worked unbelievably hard and she poured her heart out on the track, every time. I believed she had ran a good race and had been beaten by someone better on the day. I believed it was fair. I was a romantic and stupidly naive.
Three years after that race, Szabo’s Ford Mondeo was stopped by French border police outside Monaco. A package containing Actovegin, a derivative of calf serum that increases the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity in the same way as EPO, was found in the boot. Though not travelling in the car that day, Szabo was on her way to France for a training camp to prep for the World Championships in Paris and a teammate would later put up his hand and say that the drugs had been for her. Szabo was cleared ,but like the Chinese wonders, she quickly retired and decided to skip the Olympics in 2004.
Michelle Smith, Ireland’s first remarkable Olympic swimmer and 3 time gold medal and one time bronze winner at the 1996 Atlanta games. I remember the pride, the joy and the party. Two years later, Smith received a 4 year ban for tampering with her urine sample using alcohol, which was later proved to contain androstenedione, a metabolic steroid. Smith, now De Bruin, has always denied taking illegal performance enhancing drugs. Lance Armstrong’s favourite go-to quote, if I remember rightly.
Ask me now what do I remember about Sonia O’Sullivan’s running days or Michelle Smith and the ’96 Atlanta games and I will tell you that all I remember are lies, cheating and feeling like a fool. I will tell you it makes me feel sad, that it breaks my heart a little more each time it is revealed that one more athlete has doped. Watching the current IAAF controversy unfold is making me sad but what infuriates me more is the overwhelming belief (albeit my own) that what has come to light thus far has barely even scratched the surface of what is really going on in elite athletics. It feels like I’m watching the Lance Armstrong/ UCI controversy all over again and to say that I am unimpressed with the IAAF and Seb Coe would be the understatement of the century. Honestly, I’m pissed (and I don’t often use this word).
Feeling like a complete fool.
Lance Armstrong. The single most notorious cheat, liar and doper in the history of sport. Now, the thing about Lance is that he was a cheat, a liar and a doper in a cycling world that was, in all likelihood, full of other cheaters, liars and dopers so what sets him so distinctly apart from all other proven PED users? In a nutshell, it wasn’t the fact that he cheated, lied and doped, it was how he did it – his destructive, manipulative, bullying behaviour which he wielded over every and anybody who got in his way. He was nasty and he didn’t care as long as he got what he wanted. Everybody else be damned. Yes, Lance took the biscuit on this front.
I recently read My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong: Seven Deadly Sins by David Walsh, followed shortly after by going to see The Program, the Hollywood movie which was made based on Walsh’s book, followed shortly after by reading Emma O’Reilly’s book, The Race to Truth. I’ve also watched various Armstrong documentaries, the Oprah interviews and deposition tapes. That’s a lot of Lance Armstrong, let me tell you, and for a full review, pop on over to my book blog for a look.
Post Armstrong-swatting up, and in the light of the ongoing doping controversy in world athletics, I’m feeling cynical, sad and pissed off (there it is again). I am a sporting romantic and I probably always will be. I have hope, optimism and a constant belief that people will be better- better than what has preceded them and better than themselves and I am always waiting for that to happen. I will not ever shut that window, even if it means standing watching that window for the rest of my life. But I am also a lawyer and a realist and I know that there is probability that this may never happen.
You can see the conflict.