Sporting Controversies: The remarkable rise and fall of Cian O’Connor’s golden dream

It’s was a story that had the nation captivated . . . and Charlie Bird on the case

Ireland’s Cian O’Connor and Waterford Crystal celebrate winning the gold medal at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

Ireland’s Cian O’Connor and Waterford Crystal celebrate winning the gold medal at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

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On the morning of the individual showjumping competition at the 2012 Olympics, Cian O’Connor got out of bed at six o’clock and took his competition whites down from the hook.

His wife, bleary-eyed and confused, asked what he was at. When he replied that he was going to present his horse to the judges on the off-chance that one of the finalists pulled out, she sighed. “It’s over, Cian,” she said.

Except it wasn’t. Thirty-five horses had qualified for the final session, with O’Connor and Blue Loyd in 36th. One by one, the horses came up for inspection and one by one, they passed. Until the final horse, a Swedish entry, banged himself in the stable and showed up lame.

Cian O’Connor clears a jump on Waterford Crystal on the way to victory in Athens. Photograph: Reinhard Krause/Reuters
Cian O’Connor clears a jump on Waterford Crystal on the way to victory in Athens. Photograph: Reinhard Krause/Reuters

Out of nowhere, O’Connor was in. When someone asked how he was going to be able to perform in an Olympic final with only a couple of hours to prepare, he laughed. “I’ve been preparing for eight years,” he said.

By night’s end, O’Connor had Ireland’s first ever equestrian Olympic medal hanging around his neck. It was bronze instead of the gold he thought he’d won in Athens in 2004 but this time it was for keeps.

This time there would be no failed drugs test. There would be no subterfuge, no infighting, no burglaries, no international hunt, no appeals, no stress. None of that stuff. Just Cian O’Connor, Olympic medallist.

“This is not something I shy away from,” O’Connor told The Irish Times this week. “It’s a part of me. I’m not the kind of guy who’s going, ‘Ah look, don’t be writing about that, I’m ashamed of the whole thing.’ It was a mad time. And it’s a part of my story.”

‘Nobody’s been murdered’

“This is a question of resource-management,” sniffed the spokesman for the Cambridgeshire Police in the late autumn of 2004. “This case involved the theft of a bottle of horse’s urine. Nobody’s been murdered. It’s not a big deal for society. At the moment, we’ve got one DC working on it and even he’s wondering what all the fuss is about.”

Fuss? Now listen here, Plod. How about you pull up a chair and pour yourself a cup of Tetley’s and we’ll tell you all about fuss. About a country that can’t seem to go to an Olympics without a drug story to bring home. About the gilded godson of the country’s best-known baron of industry, a kid who became a household name overnight and a pariah just as quick.

A story about anti-psychotic drugs made for humans being found in the bloodstream of show horses. About late-night break-ins and stolen files. About faxes to Charlie Bird. Okay, you don’t know Charlie Bird. But constable, we know Charlie Bird. And believe this – if Charlie Bird was all mixed up in a sports story in 2004, there was plenty to be fussed about.

A file relating to a positive test of one of Cian O’Connor’s horses was the only think taken in a late night break-in at the Irish Equestrian Federation in Kill. Photograph: Eric Luke
A file relating to a positive test of one of Cian O’Connor’s horses was the only think taken in a late night break-in at the Irish Equestrian Federation in Kill. Photograph: Eric Luke

So let’s go back. Back to Ireland’s worst Olympics since Zeus. For a fortnight in Athens, the daily dispatches may as well have been sent home in a hearse. Late into the second week, the knives were long past the sharpening stage. Pat Hickey (remember him?) was already in belligerent, getting-excuses-in-early mode.

The usual reviews had been called for, all roots and branches and whatever else. John O’Donoghue was sports minister and had headed home before the final weekend. If the Minister for Expense Accounts didn’t think there was anything to hang about for, you knew there was no glory left to hunt.

Into this cold soup of an Olympics, then, the showjumpers were the last bit of garnish to be sprinkled. Nobody held out any great hope that they would significantly improve the taste. There had been a sense going into the games that one or other of them might be able to finagle a podium finish on a good day but then we say that about the showjumpers going into every Olympics.

Lo and behold, going into the final night’s jumping at the Markopoulo Centre out near Athens airport, Ireland had three riders in with a genuine medal chance. Kevin Babington was the leading Irish qualifier going in but could do no better than eighth. Jessica Kürten jumped herself into a share of the gold medal position before a disastrous last round dropped her to 20th. It was left to O’Connor to seize his moment.

Six weeks later, it all turned to ashes

He was 24 at the time, the youngest rider on the Irish team and not, it’s fair to say, the most popular man in the sport. While anyone could see he had a promising future, he was better known at that stage for who he knew than what he’d done. His grandfather was Karl Mullen, the Grand Slam-winning captain.

His godfather was Tony O’Reilly, then still flying high as Ireland’s second-richest man and the owner of O’Connor’s horse Waterford Crystal. He was well got, let’s put it that way. A bit too well, for some.

“Showjumping is a small pool,” O’Connor says now. “You had people pitching for the same places, the same horses, trying to fish in the same pot to try and find owners and backers. And I guess with the connections I had and my own brashness and cockiness – which have since been knocked off me, I’d like to think – you didn’t realise you got up people’s noses or stepped on toes.

“In 2000, I wrote on the side of my truck, ‘Working towards the Olympics in 2004.’ If I saw a young lad of 20 now doing that, I’d say, ‘Are you off your head? Why would you be drawing such attention to yourself four years out?’ Nobody said it to me at the time and maybe I wouldn’t have listened anyway.

“I think a lot of that was my own fault. I think I annoyed people, I think I was too flash, I think I came up too quick for people. A lot of people would have been perceived as being there longer and having worked harder and deserving it more. And even though I would have had a reputation for having a work ethic, I think there was a general consensus that I got there too easily, that I had a horse given to me by the O’Reillys and all that. I think people just decided it was too good to be true.”

None of that mattered yet. In the Markopoulo Centre that Friday night, O’Connor whizzed around the course as one of only two clear rounds in the field. The other belonged to Brazilian rider Rodrigo Pessoa, who had eight faults against his name from the first round of jumping. Because O’Connor carried just four faults in with him, he was left out front alone.

Cian O’Connor riding Blue Loyd at the London Olympics in 2012. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Cian O’Connor riding Blue Loyd at the London Olympics in 2012. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Out of nowhere, Ireland had an Olympic gold medal. Hickey, the shameless old dog, told everyone he had said all along that the showjumpers were a dark horse for a medal. Ireland’s dismal Olympics hadn’t suddenly been saved, not by any stretch. But at least they had somebody to walk out the front door of the plane and to send onto the Late Late.

Six weeks later, it all turned to ashes. The doping control carried out on Waterford Crystal in Athens found traces of fluphenazine and zuclophenthixol, two anti-psychotic drugs used in humans to treat conditions such as schizophrenia.

O’Connor and his vet James Sheeran released a statement saying that Waterford Crystal had suffered a fetlock injury in July, five weeks before the Games, and that as part of horse’s treatment Sheeran had administered a mild sedative. The failed test would show the sedative contained the offending drugs.

Show jumping isn’t like other Olympic sports in that it draws a distinction between in-competition and out-of-competition. While fluphenazine and zuclophenthixol were both on the banned list, Sheeran was perfectly entitled to administer them to Waterford Crystal in July. The horse needed to be kept in check for a week while the fetlock injury cleared up and it was common practice to use sedatives in this way.

I woke up that Easter Monday and nobody wanted to talk to me for the first time since the Friday night in August

As long as the drugs had cleared the horse’s system by the time the Olympics came around five weeks later, everything was above board. Problem was, they hadn’t. The FEI, equestrian sport’s governing body, warned all participants at the start of August that their detection methods were becoming more sophisticated and were thus finding smaller traces of drugs for a longer time period after their use. Waterford Crystal tested positive for tiny traces of both drugs. But you can’t be a little bit pregnant.

O’Connor had gone from being generally unknown to the country’s biggest pantomime villain in the space of six weeks. The story got the full treatment – Liveline, front pages, a Tommy Tiernan routine in time.

In and of itself, the failed test didn’t have an awful lot of legs as a story. There would be an appeal, there would be a test of the B sample, there would be due process, yadda, yadda, yadda. Showjumping was such a self-contained world that it wasn’t like O’Connor had carried the hopes and dreams of a nation to Athens with him. Ireland had a gold medal and then we hadn’t. Truth be told, it didn’t matter a whole pile to most people one way or the other.

But then somebody robbed the B sample. First it was supposed to be lost, somewhere between the lab in Paris and the lab in Newmarket. Then it emerged that a figure unknown had intercepted the DHL delivery man and signed for it before disappearing. Then it further emerged that 11 days had passed between the theft happening and the news being made public.

Then in the midst of it all, the headquarters of the Irish Equestrian Federation in Kill, Co Kildare was broken into late at night and a file related to the positive test of another of O’Connor’s horses was the only thing taken. Then – THEN! – said file was faxed to Charlie Bird, who subsequently had to sit down with the RTÉ Head of News and two detectives to tell them what he knew.

Don’t you see, Plod? Don’t you get it? This was on every news bulletin, in every paper, every day. That was the week George Bush was getting re-elected and Yasser Arafat was dying. O’Connor made more front pages than either of them.

It was all anyone was talking about. Everyone had a theory. It would take a lot of resources and knowhow to intercept the delivery of a specific B sample on a specific date and time and well sure wasn’t O’Connor the godson of Tony O’Reilly so he had any amount of money to put that plan into action, surely to God.

The problem with that idea was that a missing urine sample wouldn’t actually help O’Connor, since doping control had also taken blood tests on the night and they would later show the presence of the same two drugs. Had he, or people belonging to him, been behind the robbery, the idea would presumably have been to use the missing B sample as the technicality on which to keep his medal. People have kept titles on far more spurious grounds. But O’Connor never went down that road.

As for the break-in, it was fairly obvious that somebody somewhere was starting to sense that the missing B sample might get O’Connor off and they weren’t having it. The file showed that another horse of O’Connor’s had tested positive during the summer for similar drugs and raised questions over whether he should have been allowed to go to the Olympics at all. The fact that it was obliquely linked to the case and yet clearly designed to add to the bad smell around O’Connor showed just how much he had annoyed people in the sport.

“I didn’t know anything about it at the time, I still don’t know anything about it,” O’Connor says now. “People who didn’t really understand the story obviously pointed the finger. But of course we knew there was a blood sample to come and of course we already had our own copies of the documents that were in the federation.

“There was nothing to be gained for us when those things happened. It was compared at the time to a Dick Francis novel and it was a mad time, definitely. It gave different dimensions to it and it meant there was more intrigue around it in the public. But there were factions around at the time who would have gone to any lengths to be against me. Again, a lot of that was my own fault.”

Because of the various twists and turns, O’Connor’s personal hearing with the FEI didn’t take place until the following March in Zurich. It was Easter week, seven months to the day almost since Athens. In the end, despite the drama that had gone before, it was all relatively straightforward. The committee accepted O’Connor’s version of events but still stripped him of his gold medal. The drugs should have cleared the horse’s system but they hadn’t. Strict liability, an open and shut case.

They threw him a bone, however, with the last line of their official statement. “The Judicial Committee is satisfied that the PR [Person Responsible] has established that he was not involved in a deliberate attempt to affect the performance of the horse.” It meant that O’Connor was able to hang onto his reputation even as he was having to give up the medal. He was not an Olympic champion but neither was he a cheat.

“I woke up that Easter Monday and nobody wanted to talk to me for the first time since the Friday night in August. That felt strange. There was no noise any more. I was kind of directionless for a while. There was a lull, there was a quietness. Things could have gone either way for me in that period.”

It’s 16 years since Athens. O’Connor got married, had two kids, kept working in showjumping, set up his own coaching centre in Maynooth, kept buying and selling horses, kept competing for Ireland. All going to plan, he’d have been getting ready for Tokyo around now.

His bronze medal in London came and went with nothing like the fanfare of Athens – it happened late at night the evening before Katie Taylor’s gold medal fight and got a bit swallowed up in the frenzy. But he won it and cherished it and was happy to answer any questions about the eight years that went before it. It remains Ireland’s only ever equestrian Olympic medal.

As for the missing B sample, it was never found. The Cambridgeshire police fairly quickly moved on to other matters. Contacted by the sportswriter Paul Howard in December 2004, the spokesman was happy enough to draw his own line on the matter.

“I think we can presume it’s been tipped down a drain somewhere,” he said.

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