Drug cheat Martin Fagan returns to right side of the line

After a two-year ban for EPO use the athlete wants to compete again – but knows he cannot easily change perceptions

Martin Fagan: “I know some people will always look at me, see Martin Fagan, and say that’s the guy who cheated. Because I did cheat.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Martin Fagan: “I know some people will always look at me, see Martin Fagan, and say that’s the guy who cheated. Because I did cheat.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne


Not everyone would feel comfortable with the idea of running with a drug cheat. Would you? That may not even be a yes or no question, and no one feels as unsure of the answer right now as Martin Fagan.

There is one way to better understand. So we agree to meet for a run beside the old Belfield track, a suitably dispossessed sight, sadly past its former glory, where Fagan pulls up in a silver Renault, just a few minutes late. “Really sorry,” he says, looking healthy and lean. “I’m still getting to know this part of Dublin.”

The gentle irony in that, he tells me later, is that the drug testing people know exactly where he is right now, because he’s obligated to tell them, given he’s still part of their testing pool.

He opens the boot of his car where, sitting next to a short fishing rod, are a pair of Nike Pegasus. “These are actually the trail-running model,” he says, “because they last much longer. It’s funny because there was a time I’d get so many pairs of runners from Reebok, for free, that I’d end up dropping them into charity bins, after about three weeks. I still think there must be a few homeless guys around Arizona wearing my old Reeboks.”

From there, after both declaring our relative lack of fitness, like all runners do, we start out on a few slow loops around UCD, repeatedly asking each other if the pace is okay.

The soft morning dew dampens our easy strides, the air is blossoming on every breath, and it’s one those perfect running mornings where it feels like heaven is under your feet as well as over your head. The conversation is short and sweet, and we are somewhere around the Foster’s Avenue gate before the subject of the drug cheat comes up. With that begins another tale of a running confession that may or may not bring Fagan some forgiveness.

“It is scary,” Fagan begins, “because I know some people will always look at me, see Martin Fagan, and say that’s the guy who cheated. Because I did cheat. I know that will define me for the rest of my life, will never be forgotten. And I have to live with that.

‘Damaged the sport’
“And I know what some other athletes said about me at the time, that I did let a lot of people down, crossed the line, and badly damaged the sport. And I know I deserved all of that, and I actually needed to hear that, to fully understand the mistake I did make. I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear all that again, to run again. Because I know some people will always question what I do now, and that some people mightn’t want to see me competing again.”

So to the purpose of our exercise – because there are still questions about an athlete who is successfully nurtured as a junior, prospers on scholarship in America, goes on to win five Irish titles, runs in the Beijing Olympic marathon, then, still in the prime of his career, aged 28, is caught taking EPO, one of the more effective yet readily detected performance enhancing drugs.

There are still questions too about exactly how he ordered the EPO, over the internet, and administered it to himself in such bleak and hopeless circumstances that he felt the low of the junkie, even if it was only once. And now the more pressing question of why, after serving his two-year ban, and after openly admitting he took EPO, the athlete wants to compete again; and not just whether he should be welcomed back into the sport but whether he should even be allowed to compete.

Fagan admits that he lives with these same questions every day. He knows nothing he says or does will change what happened towards the end of 2011 when, in one last desperate effort to run the qualifying time for the London Olympic marathon, he took EPO. He knows some people still don’t buy his story, still doubt the extent of his mental fragility at the time, and reckon if he was so badly depressed he could have cried out in plenty of other ways. And he knows too that some people feel that if Fagan still truly cared about the sport, and was truly sorry for what he did, then he’d stay the hell out of it.

Everyday fight
“I fight with myself on that every day,” he says. “And I know there is an argument for lifetime bans. It’s a tough one, because I know when I got caught, I would have happily accepted a lifetime ban. The way I saw it my career was over anyway. There were so many other things going on in my life at the time that I never thought I’d ever want to get back running. I had so many other issues to sort out first.”

Like why, after effectively isolating himself at an altitude training base in Flagstaff, Arizona, he would drive around some evenings trying to resist the urge to smash his car into a tree. Or why, despite a lovingly close family back home in Mullingar, he dared not speak of his depression. Or how on earth he would deal with the crippling injuries and financial hole he woke up to every morning.

Why go on at all?

No wonder running was one of the last things on his mind when, in December 2011, under the instruction of the Irish Sports Council, the drug testers sought him out in Arizona. Fagan had missed a couple of tests before and that had made him a target, but if he’d nothing to hide before he did now. Days after that test, Fagan returned home to Mullingar knowing his race was run, and when informed of the positive result, in January 2012, he immediately confessed to have taken EPO, declined to have the B-sample tested, and accepted his two-year ban without any recourse to appeal.

Unforgivable line
By then, Fagan was feeling remorse at crossing such an unforgivable line that went far beyond the punishment of a two-year ban. It was six months before he felt comfortable enough to even to walk down the streets of Mullingar, and he never once imagined facing the Irish running public again. Instead of worrying about his physical fitness, the only priority was to address the worry and anxiety on the mental side, and why he’d let himself sink so low that he found himself reading suicide chat boards on the internet.

So, over the last two years, Fagan began addressing his depression through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which he found worked better than anti-depressants. Around the same time he bought a half-decent road bike and played a bit of Gaelic football, keen to retain some physical fitness – although fairly sure he wanted nothing to do with running, and that running wanted nothing to do with him.

Then, slowly, running reached out to him: the president of Athletics Ireland, Ciarán Ó Catháin, helped get him into a degree course in social care at Athlone IT, where Ó Catháin also serves as president. Later, some former athletes and club mates at Mullingar Harriers invited him along for a run. More recently, John Downes, Irish cross-country champion in 1991 and one of the most respected and straight-talking running coaches in the country, called up to let Fagan know that if he ever did want to get back running, and needed guidance, he’d be glad to help.

Terribly sick
Still Fagan wasn’t so sure. His father Mickey, a former star of Westmeath football and hurling, and diagnosed with multiple sclerosis back in 1980, was terribly sick, and Fagan was the only one at home now to help his mother, Marie. Then last December, two days before Christmas, his father called him and Fagan’s four sisters into his room at Midland Regional Hospital, individually, for the last time. He turned to his only son and said: “Promise me, Martin, you’ll get back running.”

As last words go, these were the last words Fagan wanted to hear. For weeks after his father’s death they haunted him, because even if he was now thinking about running again, what would running think of him? The last thing Fagan wanted to do was to walk back into the sport without being welcome, and the last thing he was sure of, having just passed his 30th birthday, was whether it would be possible to get back into proper competitive fitness.

He still wasn’t sure when he lined out for the Ringtown GAA 10k on Easter Monday, Fagan’s first race in 2½ years. So he simply agreed to run along with his sister – until about halfway, when he naturally eased into the lead, and then ended up winning, in 32:25. Afterwards he politely declined the small cash prize, thinking in no way did he deserve it.

Then, the following Wednesday, he won the Coralstown 5k in 14:45, and was handed €100 for breaking 15 minutes by a local businessman. This time Fagan accepted it, again only after some thought, but thinking maybe he did deserve that.

Indeed Fagan thinks one of the reasons he can perhaps go with this decision to run again is that he doesn’t feel he stole anything from anybody, or even cost them a place on any team. Not that he doesn’t still feel accountable in other ways, like that time a few weeks ago at Mullingar Harriers when he found himself mixing with younger athletes who, after he’d run the Olympic marathon in Beijing, had hounded him for his autograph.

Changed perceptions
He knows that perceptions of him have changed forever, and we both wonder how it must change the perception of athletes in similar positions, especially those of far weightier reputations. In the last two weeks alone there have been the cases of American sprinter Tyson Gay and Russian marathon runner Liliya Shobukhova – both now drug cheats, although with slightly different reputations.

For Shobukhova, winner of the 2010 London Marathon and three-time winner of the Chicago Marathon, abnormalities in her biological passport resulted in the Russian federation annulling all her results since 2009, while marathon organisers seek the return of the some €1 million handed over in prize money – knowing they’ve little chance of ever seeing it, or her, again.

For Gay, the American record holder over 100 metres and one-time closest challenger to Usain Bolt, a positive test last summer for an anabolic steroid initially resulted in a two-year ban, although that has now been reduced to one year, which means Gay is eligible to compete again from next month. The reason for that being Gay provided the United States Anti-Doping Agency with “substantial assistance” as to why he tested positive, claiming it was all down to steroid cream which he did not know contained a banned substance.

“That’s a tough one too,” says Fagan, “because I think any assistance like that should be demanded anyway, and given anyway.”

Feel normal again
It was actually demanded of him too, by the Irish Sports Council, when he tested positive, but Fagan is still adamant that no one ever offered him drugs, that he never saw any other athlete taking drugs, and the reason he took EPO wasn’t to cheat on anyone, or even win anything, but just to help him feel normal again so he could train like normal again.

Fagan doesn’t expect everyone to believe him when he says that, but for now, perhaps, enough people do to help convince him there is a way back into the sport. Downes has been coaching him for the last number of weeks, bringing a more holistic approach to the training too by working on aspects of Fagan’s running gait: before, it was more about avoiding injury; now, it’s more about preventing injury. There is a subtle but important difference.

There are others who believe Fagan still has the talent which in 2009 saw him break John Treacy’s Irish half-marathon record, when running 60 minutes and 57 seconds for the 13.1 miles. They include the organisers of some better-known road races, including tomorrow’s Terenure 5 mile who have invited Fagan to run. He hopes he can return that favour by delivering a decent performance.

In the back of Fagan’s mind, naturally, is the Dublin Marathon in October, although he reckons it’s too soon to know if his body, and indeed mind, will be up to that challenge. Because in the back of his mind is the idea that not everyone would feel comfortable with the idea of running with him.

Not every drug cheat goes as far as to actually think that, and there may never be a yes or no answer, which is why only the drug cheat can decide whether or not they should be welcomed back into the sport.

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