The Rio question: F the cheaters – but which ones?
Una Mullally: The haze of cheating that has hung over this Olympics at times looks as if Christ the Redeemer is holding out his hands in exasperation
‘Smart sports journalists barely veil their incredulity when an athlete does something incredible.’ Above, the statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooks the city of Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images
When Michael Conlan raised both of his middle fingers in the ring after his “defeat” to Vladimir Nikitin, the message was clear: F the cheats. Nikitin was so beat up that he skipped the semi-final, giving his competitor Shakur Stevenson a walkover and taking a bronze medal. One of the abiding memories of the Olympics will be Conlan’s visceral post-fight interview, his eyes wide with shock and anger, his heart bursting. If you could bottle unfairness, pints of it would have overflowed in the atmosphere of the arena afterwards. F the cheaters. But which ones?
AIBA, Olympic boxing’s governing body has all but admitted there was something seriously wrong happening in Rio, expelling a number of judges and referees from the tournament. As the gate shuts long after the horse has bolted, what of Conlan’s shattered dreams? And he is, of course, not the only one to fall foul of bizarre decisions that make even a casual observer immediately cry foul. F the cheats.
Is there any team or nation in the Olympics untouched by cheating allegations? Conlan’s team mate Michael O’Reilly torpedoed his career when he was sent home from Rio after failing a drugs test. And the very different kind of scandal involving allegations of a ticketing cartel and illegal ticket touting that has unfolded over the last 24 hours involving the Olympic Council of Ireland and its President Pat Hickey introduced Brazilians and international journalists to the Irish concept of GUBU. F the cheats.
The haze of cheating that has hung over this Olympics at times looks as if Christ the Redeemer is holding out his hands in exasperation. Smart sports journalists barely veil their incredulity when an athlete does something incredible. The armchair fan is apparently a schmuck for innocently believing in “faster higher stronger”, apart from, perhaps, the “higher” bit. F the cheats.
When Mo Farah won that epic 10,000m race after falling during it, the Irish journalist Ewan MacKenna questioned him in the ensuing press conference about his association with Jama Aden, the Somali coach who was arrested in Spain this year on doping charges. EPO, syringes and anabolic steroids were found in Aden’s training group’s rooms. According to British Athletics, Aden’s association with Farah involved holding a stopwatch and shouting out times, yet MacKenna reminded Farah of photographs of him having dinner at Aden’s house. Once you start digging, you see, even at the surface, rumours and allegations and strange patterns and associations are rarely far away. Who is cheating, and who is clean? More and more, athletes who are clean are moving beyond pursing their lips at outrageous times on the track or in the pool, and remarking on the peculiarity of their competitors’ times. More and more, the microscope the internet and social media floats over sport, almost drone like, is focusing on these questionable times and dodgy associations.
But we don’t want it to be so. We want it to be fair. And even if it isn’t fair, we want to believe. Sports broadcasters seem to cheer the loudest, where sports print journalists hold back. Maybe it’s hard not to get caught up in the moment.
One of the strange professional and fan attitudes towards this and every Olympics is that certain athletes are “too big to be dirty”. That’s ridiculous, especially when you look at the massive stars in sport who have cheated. The Olympic canonisation of Usain Bolt is continuing, a man and a brand the Olympics desperately needs to distract from the more farcical elements of Rio’s stint (the safety issues, the green pool, the empty arenas, the dodgy boxing judging).
The best way of illustrating how remarkable Bolt’s speed is, is by looking at the 30 fastest 100m times ever, nine of which have been run by Bolt. The top three have been run by Bolt. The 21 other fastest times ever were all run by athletes who tested positive for doping at some stage. Are these nine times the nine magic clean ones? Is Bolt so much of an anomaly that he is able to run faster than athletes who have doped? Let’s hope so, let’s hope he’s just that naturally amazing. Let’s believe. But can we be forgiven for being suspicious even though that hurts the athlete, when neutral fans and nations who love their athletes have been cheated so many times before? F the cheats for making us doubt everything.
This Olympics has been a strange one. People make jokes about the ‘Doping Games’, but it hurts. It hurts to see human graft and achievement and grit and passion and dreams be undermined. It hurts to think that there has almost definitely been someone – or many – young people whose dreams have been shattered because of cheating, who never got to achieve all they worked for an rightly deserved. We want to think sport is pure. But it’s dirty as hell.
Perhaps we now have to step back from investing so much in speed and power, facets of sport that can be corrupted so easily. You can’t dope technical skill. Surely there is no drug that could make Simone Biles fly and twist like she does. There is no drug that can make Annalise Murphy command her medal race in the way she did. But we want higher, faster, stronger. Now we have it. F the cheats.