D Reilly

The shame of Britain’s sporting heroes

The shame of Britain's sporting heroes
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The comedian Richard Pryor famously advised any man caught committing adultery by his wife to deny everything and instead to ask: “now who you gonna believe – me or your lyin’ eyes?” This would be a good motto for British sport.

For years, sports fans in this country have been impelled to disregard the evidence our lyin’ eyes, for example, about why so many top level British endurance athletes seem to have debilitating asthma, or why the bikes used by Team Sky are heavier than those used by their rivals, or how it could be that plucky Britain with its smaller population finished higher in the medal table at the London 2012 Olympic Games than Russia, with its supposedly state-sponsored Putin-approved doping program (according to the McLaren report the London Games were “corrupted on an unprecedented scale” by those villainous Ruskies). 

On Monday, some five and a half years after London 2012, a tsunami of ordure finally crashed over British sport. The release of the Digital, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee’s two-year report into doping in UK sport at last put paid to the ludicrous idea that British sportspeople are somehow inherently morally superior to filthy cheating foreign athletes, or any less interested in lorry loads of lolly. In its aftermath, it’s hard to see how the reputations of our ennobled sporting heroes Sir Bradley Wiggins, Sir David Brailsford or Lord Coe will smell sweet again.

In the report we read page after page of findings based on painstakingly collected testimony indicating, amongst other things, that Britain’s most successful Olympian and Tour de France winner Sir Bradley Wiggins took triamcinolone – a corticosteroid that just happens to facilitate rapid weight loss without loss of strength – not once but up to nine times. He denies the allegation. The drug was used “to prepare Bradley Wiggins, and possibly other riders supporting him, for the Tour de France... not to treat medical need, but to improve his power to weight ratio ahead of the race”, the report said.

We also read that doctors at Sir David Brailsford-run winning machine Team Sky apparently thought medical record keeping was such a faff they often didn’t bother, meaning it was impossible to ascertain what was in the famous jiffy bag spirited from Manchester to La Toussuire in 2011, where Wiggins was competing in the Critérium du Dauphiné race.

We read, too, that Lord Coe, the magnificently glossy haired head honcho of global athletics and mastermind of the London 2012 Olympic Games, now stands accused of misleading parliament over when he first knew of large-scale corruption allegations against Russian athletics.

And we also saw that Sir Mo Farah was given an injection of permitted fat burning drug L-carnitine by another doctor – Dr. Rob Chakraverty – who, like the Team Sky doctors, didn’t get around to writing down what he was prescribing to Britain’s best ever track athlete. (Dr Chakraverty is now the doctor in charge of overseeing the English football team.)

The report contained much more besides, all of it so obviously, ludicrously indefensible. And yet that is what top level British sportspeople and federations have been doing for years – defending it to the hilt.

The problem with catching sportspeople illegally doping is that it’s incredibly hard to do. The tests are far from foolproof, the mechanics of finding athletes out of competition and visiting them to take samples is hugely expensive and the playing field is anyway inherently not level (for example, should athletes who claim to suffer from a pre-existing medical condition such as asthma have access to medications with powerful performance enhancing qualities while athletes who don’t have asthma do not?)

The situation is certainly not helped by the fact that for virtually all sports now broadcast in the UK, commentary teams of well informed, objectively-minded journalists have been replaced with retired athletes or players – men and women who are effectively cheerleaders reluctant to bite the hand that once fed, rather than impartial observers prepared to ask difficult questions.

Worryingly, some traditional sports journalists also seem recently to have too easily surrendered their professional detachment around British sport’s biggest names. In the case of Team Sky, Times journalists Matthew Syed and David Walsh actually went to live with the team for a period of several weeks – in Walsh’s case for thirteen weeks – an event that may or may not have influenced their subsequent decisions to become vocal advocates for the team’s moral rectitude. Walsh, who is famously credited with being the journalist who bought down Lance Armstrong, would later claim he was “duped” into vouching in print for the team by Sir David Brailsford; while Syed – who in December, 2016, wrote: “the success of British Cycling has been one of the most powerful stories in global sport, is a tribute to the work of many honourable people, and is a source of national pride. When we look back in ten years, I suspect that this basic narrative will remain intact” – has founded a lucrative and successful international speaking career on the back of Brailsford’s “marginal gains” credo. His book Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secret of High Performance still rides high on best-seller lists. 

Proper journalism in sport is important because sport ultimately is no different to every other area of life: people will break the rules to get ahead unless they are sufficiently disincentivised from doing so. Just because athletes look pure of course does not mean that they necessarily are – they, like everyone else, have mouths to feed and mortgages to pay and plenty of other compelling reasons to do whatever they can, fair or foul, to maximise their earning power.

It is high time doping in any form to win money was made a criminal offence in Britain, because that, of course, is what it is: deception by fraud. Until it is punishable by law, it will never stop. It's that or go on ignoring our lyin' eyes while waving our flags and applauding like seals.