Nolan has no regrets, even if the cheaters robbed him

Sat, May 2, 2009, 01:00

ATHLETICS:HE WAS making dinner for his wife when James Nolan noticed his phone starting to hop like mad. “It’s Ramzi . . . busted, they finally got him.” The only surprise was that there was no surprise. There are some athletes you hope or pray or even believe will never be done for drugs, and Rashid Ramzi was not one of them.

One of the questions I’m constantly asked in this business is whether I think he/she is on drugs – and most of the time the only honest answer is “I don’t know”. Or in some cases, “I don’t want to know”.

Few of us could say for sure we were never taken in by Marion Jones or never impressed by Ben Johnson.

James Nolan was 100 per cent sure about Ramzi. Not only was he never taken in or mildly impressed, he knew from day one Ramzi was on drugs. When the Moroccan turned Bahraini first burst onto the scene at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki, winning the 800-1,500 metre double, Nolan told us he was “doped up to his eyeballs” – but of course we never printed that. We were 99 per cent sure; we just didn’t have any hard evidence.

When that evidence finally surfaced on Wednesday, a full eight months after Ramzi won the 1,500 metres gold at the Beijing Olympics, Nolan raised a quick smile, and then got back to making dinner. At 32, after a decade as Ireland’s leading middle-distance runner, Nolan retired at the start of this year – unassumingly, with no regrets.

“I would choose my normal life now over his mess of a life,” he says. “Any day.

“I know whenever I said stuff like this, that I knew an athlete was on drugs, some people reckoned I was just bitter, because I couldn’t compete with them. Then three or four years later someone like Ramzi gets caught. The reality is most of these guys get their comeuppance in the end. They also start suffering from health problems later in life, sometimes pay the ultimate price.

“It’s better to enjoy the sport clean and finish up with no regrets. I’d rather do that than win medals and pay the ultimate price a few years down the road.”

Truth is, Nolan could have plenty of regrets. There were several occasions when he missed out on championship finals and possibly even medals because of athletes like Ramzi. And he was too often criticised because of that, once labelled as a dilettante – and often accused of not training hard enough.

Ramzi almost certainly cost Nolan a place in the final of that 1,500 metres in Helsinki. In 2003, Nolan finished sixth at the World Indoors in Birmingham, and one of those ahead of him, Morocco’s Abdel Hachlaf, was later done for a doping offence. In 2002, Nolan missed out on a place at the European Championships in Munich, while the fourth-place finisher, Fouad Chouki of France, was also done for drugs. They’re just the ones who were caught.

It’s scary to think how close Ramzi came to getting away with it. The Olympic 1,500 metres crown is sacred in distance running and Ramzi’s victory in Beijing was an act of treason. On the night, there was none of the thrill associated with winning such a prized event, only disgust – that horrible, sinking feeling of knowing the sport has been robbed of one its finest moments.

He was born and raised as Rachid Khoula, and won a silver medal for Morocco at the African Juniors in 1999. But he soon found himself unable to break onto the senior team, so he took a friend’s advice and gained Bahraini citizenship in 2001. He joined the armed forces and changed his name in the process.

When Bahrain realised he was a decent runner they gave him as much money as he needed and total freedom to train – by whatever methods, it seems, he deemed fit.

It’s scary as well to think that, without cycling’s intervention, Ramzi may never have been caught. During last summer’s Tour de France, testers first realised that good old-fashioned erythropoietin (EPO) was no longer the blood-boasting drug of choice; instead the cheaters had moved on to the modified version, continuous erythropoietin receptor activator (Cera).

Not only is Cera stronger, and longer-lasting – thus requiring far fewer injections – it was also deemed undetectable. It’s a larger substance than EPO and mostly blocked from the kidneys, thereby eliminating traces in the urine.

In January of 2008, Cera was approved for the treatment of anaemia and chronic kidney disease, under the trade name Mircera. Professional cycling, given its – em, addiction – to such substances, quickly indulged, and early in the 2008 Tour traces of Mircera were found in the urine of Italy’s Riccardo Ricco.

Ricco was unlucky. He was caught by chance rather than design, yet gave the testers the tip-off they needed. They refined their EPO test to single out Cera, and retested around 30 riders. In October, it was announced that Germany’s two-time stage winner Stefan Schumacher, Austria’s polka-dot winner Bernhard Kohl, plus another Italian, Leonardo Piepoli, had been done for Cera.

When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) got wind of this they reckoned they better live up to their promise, and in January started retesting a select 948 samples given in Beijing, focusing on possible Cera use in athletics, cycling, swimming and rowing. The endurance events, in other words – and six of those tests, including Ramzi’s, came back positive.

There are two ways of looking at his ultimate discrediting: that drug use is still a big problem for the sport, or that the authorities are doing all they can to clean it up. Nolan is not so sure.

“I first heard of Cera about two years ago, from a few different people, on the circuit. So it’s obviously taken until now for them to start catching athletes using it.

“You’d have to believe they’re going to keep doing this. It’s like when they found the designer steroid THG. They just branch off onto something else. I’m sure they’ll develop something else in a few months, change some molecule to EPO, so that it can’t be detected. It just goes on and on. As long as there’s money and fame involved there’ll be no end to it.”

The problem with a cheat like Ramzi is that his disregard for the sport not only trickles on but trickles down. Assuming he is stripped of his title, Kenya’s Asbel Kiprop is promoted to the gold medal position, New Zealand’s Nick Willis improves to silver and Mehdi Baala of France now finds himself with bronze.

“I’m realistic enough to know this didn’t cost me an Olympic or World Championship medal,” says Nolan. “It maybe cost me positions, but there were a lot of athletes out there better than me. Making an Olympic final was probably as far as I would have taken it.

“I ran 3:35, the Olympic A-standard, but would have always set the bar a little higher. I’d liked to have run 3:32, 3:33, like the top Irish athletes before me had run.

“But indoors, I’d say, there would have been situations where I would have been on the podium had these guys on drugs not been on it. That’s a bit of a pain in the ass.”

Chronic Achilles’ tendon pain led to Nolan’s retirement. “I started to feel I was beating my head against a brick wall. I’d a good 14 years at it, got a good innings out of the sport. I couldn’t be too disappointed about that.

“And I’ll always run, just for the enjoyment of it.”