True cheats don’t do it alone
While the world’s libraries are busy shifting Lance Armstrong’s autobiography from the non-fiction to the fiction shelf, I’m wondering into which genre the Australian Crime Commission’s report on the corruption of Australian sport will eventually fall.
Unless the darkest day in Australian sport is illuminated sometime soon, I’m worried it will be considered something of a docudrama based on a true story and we will be left wondering what was real and what wasn’t.
What has surprised me, given the gambling culture in this country, is that the plethora of betting agencies aren’t offering odds on which players, teams or matches will eventually be named and shamed.
Forgive the cynicism but there’s a lot of it going around at the moment, and it’s damaging Aussie sport almost as much as this reticent report. But I don’t want to talk about the ACC’s scattergun claims. Everyone else has written about them and by now you’ve formed an opinion on whether what you’re watching (or not watching) on Australian sports fields is real or rigged.
I just want to tell you why I wasn’t surprised when our national criminal intelligence and investigation agency said there is doping and corruption in Australian sport and why I watch all professional sport and the Olympics with a degree of scepticism. (Except when Geelong beat Collingwood in AFL Grand Finals. Then I am only too happy to suspend disbelief.)
An Australian sports magazine once sent me to Rome to interview Sandro Donati, then head of science and research at the Italian Olympic Committee. The former athletics coach had waged a one-man war on corruption in sport and, in doing so, sacrificed his country’s reputation in an attempt to reveal the global problem.
Donati is living proof of the role that coaches play in the doping of athletes. After his appointment as a national running coach his boss asked him what he was expecting from his chargers at the upcoming Los Angeles Games. Donati replied he was hopeful that a few of them would make the final. To which his boss allegedly replied: “The final? What is the final? People aren’t interested about an athlete in the final. People are interested in medals.”
Donati was briefed on how blood-doped athletes could take off 30-40 seconds over 10,000m, 15-20 seconds over 5000m and 3-5 seconds over 1500m.
In what might be considered a primitive doping practice in 2013, but which in the ‘80s was the cutting edge way to a winning edge, half a litre of blood was drawn from a promising athlete, from which the younger and stronger red blood cells were removed and refrigerated at -90°C.
A few days before competition, athletes received a transfusion of their reinvigorated blood which immediately boosted their red blood cell count, meaning resistance, endurance and results. The only compromise was to the athletes’ health (think cyclist Marco Pantani), which is why Donati spoke out.
Realising it futile to fight doping from within a corrupt system, in 1985 the conscientious objector approached the Italian parliament, where he managed to convince the Health Minister of the risks involved. The practice of blood transfusions became classified as doping and was outlawed in Italy. The International Olympic Committee promptly followed suit.
“Like all my victories it was a pyrrhic victory,” said Donati, describing success that comes at too great a cost to be of use. “I realised that the sports system had a great capacity for metamorphosis, and if it gets caught with its hands in the marmalade it either changes marmalade or hides it. Blood doping merely opened the road to EPO (think Lance Armstrong) because blood doping was a trial to understand the roll of EPO.”
Since then, Donati has had many other pyrrhic victories, the most famous of which cost him his job. At the 1987 World Athletics Championships in Rome, Donati proved that the field judges of the long jump had put the distances for hometown hero Giovanni Evangelisti into the computer BEFORE Evangelisti jumped, ensuring him a medal he was forced to hand back. The tragedy for the tainted athlete was that he had no idea of the fix.
What depressed me most about my interview with Donati was that he made me realise the will to cheat was greater than the will to catch cheats, and that the science of doping was more advanced than the science of anti-doping. Donati even found a drug testing laboratory that was helping athletes avoid detection rather than detecting them.
Cheats can only prosper in an environment that permits them to prosper. Lance Armstrong never failed a single drug test and didn’t work alone.
Though reluctant to burst, the current cloud in Australian sport brought about by the ACC’s report hovers over more than the athletes’ heads. The credibility of the entire sporting landscape is at stake: athletes coaches, scientists, support staff, administrators, betting agencies…
Let’s just hope if our hometown heroes do get caught with their hands in the marmalade that we don’t simply serve them up as scapegoats but we unmask the people behind the scenes who not only supplied that marmalade but who gave them the means and the incentive to spread it.
Will that ever happen while the financial rewards of sport are so ridiculously high, and while the pie is so appetising that everyone wants a slice?
I hope the ACC’s victory, if it becomes a victory, isn’t in vain like those of Sandro Donati.
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