Diarmaid Ferriter: Rot in athletics will take time to fix

The sad thing now is that I am not sure I would be bothered to wake my own children from slumber to witness an Olympic race

John Treacy winning silver at the 1984 Olympics. (Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images)

John Treacy winning silver at the 1984 Olympics. (Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images)

 

One of my favourite childhood memories is of being woken from my sleep on August 13th, 1984, by my father. On the television downstairs, Irish athlete John Treacy was battling it out with Britain’s Charlie Spedding in the Olympic marathon. They had already run 25 miles on the steaming roads of Los Angeles and my father was determined I would not miss a historic moment in Irish athletics. Treacy pulled away from Spedding towards the end and ran towards the finish line in the Olympic stadium to claim the silver medal. The passionate RTÉ commentator Jimmy Magee reeled off the names of previous Irish Olympic medallists and saluted the extraordinary achievement of Treacy, whom he called “the little man with the great heart”. Not far behind Treacy was another brilliant Irish runner, Jerry Kiernan, who finished ninth, another amazing feat, especially considering Kiernan was a full-time teacher.

The sad thing now is that I am not sure I would be bothered to wake my own children from slumber to witness an Olympic race, however thrilling it might appear. The extent of the tarnishing of athletics by cheating is such that it is almost impossible not to be deeply cynical as “the great heart” of the sport referred to by Magee in 1984 is difficult to discern amid the fog of performance-enhancing drugs.

Damning report

Dick Pound

The concerns about doping are not just recent. There was much more public awareness about the issue after the dramatic controversy in 1988 when sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal at the Seoul Olympics for use of the steroid Stanozolol which he claimed he took to level the playing field. But long before that, those on the “inside” of sport were referring to the doping issue. In 1964, in advance of the Tokyo Olympics, the British Medical Journal, in an article on doping, welcomed what it called a “forthright attempt to put an end to it”. This involved the British Association of Sport and Medicine sending a 10-clause policy to all governing bodies involved in sport, which concluded with the assertion “the only effective and safe way of ensuring optimum performance is a full programme of training and preparation. This cannot be said too often.”

The issue of “optimum performance” has been so compromised over the last 50 years and the moral compass so shattered that the Wada report refers to the Russian athletes as having “sabotaged” the London Olympics in 2012 and the authors insist their findings are only “the tip of the iceberg”. What has been lost in the midst of decades of doping?

In his 2007 book The Case Against Perfection, Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel looked at the manner in which virtuous achievements in athletics, such as “effort and striving, grit and determination”, have been compromised, not just because doping distorts and overrides natural gifts but because we all need to appreciate “the gifted character of human powers and achievements” to preserve “key features of our moral landscape – humility, responsibility and solidarity”.

Stolen medals

Gabriela SzaboSydney OlympicsSzabo

The supposed “golden girl” of the Sydney Olympics was Marion Jones, the US sprinter who was sentenced to six months in prison in 2008 for lying to federal prosecutors about her steroid use. She won five medals at Sydney.

Obviously, a clean athlete who witnesses the public exposure of cheats who ran against them will feel a certain vindication that the wrongdoing has been publicised. But it is not as simple as that. Tarnished Olympic finals are not rerun and real amends can never be made. We should not forget that for all those such as Marion Jones there are also athletes who continue to share the ideals, courage and natural talent of the likes of Treacy and O’Sullivan, but such is the extent of the rot that a renewal of faith in the sport seems a long way off.

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