On Saturday night past, DIT (Dublin Institute of Technology) won the Sigerson Cup for the first time. In the small hours, naked photos of one of their star players, Meath’s Alan Nestor, began appearing on the internet. Naked that is, apart from the fact that he covered his manhood with the Dr. Sigerson Cup.
I have to say, if I had a face like Alan’s, I wouldn’t be posing in the nip, but then again he is from Meath. The fun really began when the GAA’s Higher Education Chairman Ray O’Brien described this as “a serious matter that could be seen as bringing the association into disrepute,” adding that, “If we have to take disciplinary action we will.” One hopes this will not discourage GAA players from posting naked photos of themselves on social media. It is a civil (and perhaps religious) liberty that we must zealously protect. Safe to say, the only drug that Alan was on at the time was Guinness, which as Shakespeare put it, “provokes the desire but takes away the performance.”
Around about the same that Nestor was saying to his mates, “Alright lads, just one more photo and remember this is to be kept strictly amongst ourselves,” US heavyweight Tony Thompson was knocking out hot favourite David Price, leaving the huge Liverpudlian crowd wondering. A few days before the fight, Thompson, 41, said candidly in the press conference that, “Doping has become so widespread in professional sport that it should be legalised. All banning it does is leave the few remaining good guys without guns.”
A few days earlier, The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) president John Fahey announced that doping was now more widespread and sophisticated than it has ever been and that it is “thriving” across all professional sports: “There is a long held belief that sport embodies the values of fair play and honesty that we want our children exposed to. Maybe we need to consider whether sport may in fact be a corrupting influence, especially the closer an athlete gets to elite level.”
The words were scarcely out of Fahey’s mouth when the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) announced the truly shocking findings of their investigation into doping in pro-sport down under. The investigation had begun after Australian customs officials intercepted a series of massive consignments of illegal substances being imported into the country by organised crime gangs. The ACC investigation concluded that the problem has reached epidemic proportions, with, “Widespread abuse of performance boosting drugs by professional athletes, facilitated by sports scientists, high performance coaches and sports staff.”
Within the last week, cyclist Tyler Hamilton was giving evidence in the ‘Operation Puerto’ trial in Spain, where five defendants, including the notorious Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, are on trial on public health charges relating to systematic doping of athletes. Giving his testimony via video-link from the Spanish Embassy in Washington, Hamilton told one particularly blood curdling story from the 2004 Tour. Fuentes, he said, had given him a bag of blood to transfuse into himself. Hamilton described taking it into the team hotel, where his cycling team’s doctor set up the transfusion in the bathroom. This was not unusual, since the team’s hotel rooms generally doubled up as makeshift doping clinics. Only this time there was a problem. “Thirty or 40 minutes later,” said Hamilton to the packed Madrid courtroom, “I went to the bathroom and my urine was black.”
Hamilton described another shocking scene at Madrid airport hotel in the days leading up to the 2004 Dauphiné Libéré Race. Fuentes, he claimed, had arrived with another doctor and started blood transfusions for Hamilton and four other cyclists. He described the doctors moving from bed to bed, checking on the cyclists like doctors in a dialysis ward. It was well worth it. As Hamilton explained: “All of us finished in the top 10.”
Another cyclist, Jesus Manzano, told the court he was given medicines used for dogs and cows by Fuentes, who told him, “Some days you will be barking, some days mooing.” According to Manzano, his entire team (Kelme) were on a comprehensive doping regime. They rubbed powder on the end of the penis to destroy urine samples. They drank pints of human albumin to fool the drug testers’ blood-level tests. It all ended for Manzano when he almost died one fateful day on the 2003 Tour de France. That morning, he had injected himself with oxyglobin, a product used to increase blood oxygen levels in dogs. On a hill climb a few hours later, Manzano suddenly stopped barking, fell unconscious on his saddle and collapsed onto the road.
Put simply, money corrupts. Fahey estimates that around 80% of cheaters will never be caught and points out that in team sports like soccer and rugby, players can go through an entire career without a single test. Even if they are tested, it is a needle in a haystack situation, since you need to be either very stupid or very unlucky to be caught. EPO (blood booster) for example can pass through your system in as little as 12 hours. Injecting tiny amounts of a particular drug (micro-dosing) makes it virtually impossible to detect.
It is interesting that although this worldwide virus is lapping on the shores of the GAA, it is not infecting us. Since the Irish Sports Council began drug testing GAA players, we have become the third highest group tested on this island. Yet in all that time, there has been only one failed test, when Aidan O’Mahoney – an asthmatic – tested positive for salbutamol, which is the drug sprayed out from the ventolin inhaler used by asthmatics. Aidan was quickly exonerated and that as they say, was that.
Derry and Ulster’s Chrissy McKaigue was at the Railway Cup final press launch last week. He used to play Aussie Rules and was asked to compare the respective fitness levels. “We are just as fit,” said McKaigue, ”With a better attitude.” In their recent report, the ACC pointed an accusing finger at Aussie Rules. Yet in spite of our professional fitness levels, the GAA remains immune. There is a reason why none of our players take the field barking or mooing. We play for love, not money. As professional sport continues its descent into the swamp of corruption, it is a timely reminder that the world’s last great amateur organisation is handing down something beautiful to our kids. With the possible exception of Alan Nestor’s photos.