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Athletics facing one hell of a clean-up operation - The Irish News
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Athletics facing one hell of a clean-up operation

Ben Johnson, pictured at the Seoul Olympics, was one athlete whose clean image was just too good to be true 

CHEATS getting caught is brilliant, isn't it?

I used to think so - the same way I used to love athletics. I positively revelled in Ben Johnson's positive drugs test at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Admittedly, that was partly because I'd scoffed at an uncle who had expressed admiration for the Canadian sprinter, telling him confidently: "He's on drugs. Nobody is that fast." Being right felt good, but it also bred cynicism in me, or increased it anyway.

I used to love watching athletics, even though, in participatory terms, I'd always considered that the long distance events began with the 200 metres. Unsurprisingly and as an acknowledged part-time fan of athletics, my favourite event was 'the fast show', the 100m.

Finding out who was 'the Fastest Man (or Woman) in the World' captured worldwide attention. Those were the days when we also cared who was the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World. Johnson's cheating chipped away at that excitement, as did the suspicions over the golden girl of those 1988 Olympics, 'Flo Jo', aka Florence Griffith Joyner. There were serious question marks too over the next man to finish first in an Olympic 100m final, Linford Christie, although it was years after Barcelona '92 that he was punished for drug use.

Although the brilliance of Michael Johnson in the 200 and 400m held my attention, the drip, drip, drip of positive drugs tests eventually turned me off athletics almost altogether. It got to the stage where I genuinely struggled to recall where Olympics were held in particular years, never mind who won anything at them.

Working in this paper then brought me into contact with people who loved the Tour de France, and Lance Armstrong in particular. Previously, I'd only considered cycling a means of getting around before I owned a car or could get a lift. Yet, the major reason I was puzzled by colleagues being enthralled by 'the Tour' was that it seemed obvious to me that many of the successful riders were on drugs.

Like Ben Johnson before him, Armstrong was also too good to be true. However, some colleagues confidently rejected my cynicism, especially about their beloved Lance. That hero worship was reflected by the wider public.

A column in which I suggested Armstrong wasn't even the greatest cyclist ever, never mind the second greatest sportsperson ever, as a recent poll had suggested, prompted some particularly nasty emails. The worst vitriol wasn't even directed at me, but at a dead Gaelic footballer whom I hadn't even mentioned, but whom the Lance-lover assumed I admired.

So when Armstrong was eventually exposed, beyond the doubt of all but his craziest acolytes, I'll confess to a certain air of smugness. I may have said 'I told you so' once. Possibly twice. Again, it felt good to be right, but another sport was sullied.

Ironically, I allowed my interest in athletics to reawaken at the 2012 Olympics and that was just partly because the only tickets I was able to secure for any event were for an afternoon of track and field at the Olympic Stadium. I say 'ironically' because the latest World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) report has exposed the level of cheating that went on at those London Olympics.

Russia appears to be the chief culprit, but Dick Pound, the chairman of the independent commission set up by Wada to investigate, has suggested his findings are merely the tip of an iceberg made up of illegal doping.

Athletics has a long road to run in order to rebuild the trust of casual fans. When the trust is gone, or severely damaged, it's very hard to regain or repair it. We don't want our heroes to have feet of clay, for their feats to be based on cheating.

Athletics is now in its own Catch-22 scenario. The quandary for athletics - like cycling - is that the more cheats it catches, the harder it tries to clean up its act, the dirtier it actually appears to be.

The IAAF under its new president Seb Coe may well do its best to start again with a clean slate, but the stain left by drug-taking will be very hard to wipe out of public perception.


ATTENDING the Allstars for the first time in a few years, I must have been one of the few members of the media who actually went in to witness the live broadcast.

To amuse us, my wife asked which winners she should cheer and whom she should boo. 'Boo no one', I replied. Obviously. Cheesy grin emoji. To our right, a couple applauded especially enthusiastically for all the Dublin winners.

I also showed off my knowledge by predicting who the players had chosen for the various 'player of the year' awards. Correctly, of course. Adding comments about the suitability for the accolades of the various contenders.

Seemingly seconds after the show was over and the stage had cleared, there stood Jack McCaffrey next to us, having clearly deployed the searing pace he exhibits on the pitch.

Slightly surprised, I stated the bleedin' obvious: "There's the Footballer of the Year."

"I'm just here to see my folks," he explained, gesturing to the couple next to us.

"Just as well I said you were a worthy winner," I replied.

That was true, but given that we'd happened to be next to a player's parents among 1,600 attendees you'd have thought I'd have learned my lesson to hold my tongue… Later in the night, there was some debate about the merits and demerits of one particular Dublin Allstar – go on, guess which one!

One guest at the same table as me was a hurler with a Meath club. A receptive audience for criticism of a Dublin footballer, you might assume. Not when the supposed Royal turned out to be a born and bred Dub, who'd just moved west of his native county's boundaries.

Cue him glaring at me as if he were closely related to yer man in question. Which he probably was…


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