When cheats call shots

When cheats call shots

With the purveyors of sport relying increasingly on unfair means, the fans feel they are being taken for a ride

When cheats call shots

It was August 2004. The Athens Olympics were in full roar, and a few of us boarded a bus in the darkness, made the long, overnight ride to the site of the ancient games in Olympia and reported on a feel-good shot put competition that turned out – like too many modern competitions – to be a sham.

It was a steamy day for nostalgia and seeking shade beneath the olive trees; a day for deep thoughts about cultural links across millenniums and the enduring relevance of sport; a day for hailing the Athens organisers’ bright idea of bringing the Olympics back to their dusty origins, or at least close enough (the ancient Greeks competed in the nude in their men-only games, and never in the shot put).

It was also a day for interviewing the winners who would later turn out to be losers, sometimes quite a bit later.

Justice was relatively swift for Irina Korzhanenko of Russia, the original champion in the women’s shot put in Olympia. She tested positive for the banned steroid stanozolol during the Games and was stripped of her title less than a week later, giving the gold medal to Yumileidi Cumba of Cuba.
“Of course we’re very unhappy,” Arne Ljungqvist, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission, said at the games in 2004. “It’s very sad, and it tarnishes what was meant to be a symbolic event.”

But the event, for reasons other than the intended, has grown ever more symbolic through the years, and more than eight years were required for the IOC to catch the original men’s champion, Yuriy Bilonog of Ukraine.

Bilonog’s doping samples from 2004 were among those retested last year with advanced methods. This time, he tested positive for the steroid oxandrolone, and he was stripped of his gold medal by the IOC in December.

Which brings us to the night a few days back in New York, where Adam Nelson, the stocky Ivy Leaguer who won the silver medal for the United States in 2004, received a warm reception from the crowd before he was honoured at the start of the Millrose Games.  Nelson, now 37 and no longer competing, was there to be honoured by the Millrose organisers, who gave him flowers as he awaits official word from the IOC on whether he will be elevated to Olympic gold medallist.

Retroactive has become the new active in this polluted, convoluted sports era, in which you can rarely be sure whether the race or game or shot put contest you just spent a few precious moments of your life observing was what it purported to be.

At this stage, it seems that all sporting events should come with a disclaimer: consumer discretion advised.

Think of all the human enthusiasm and energy expended for naught on those seven Tours de France won by Lance Armstrong that no longer have a winner. Think of all the songs that have been sung and roars that have been roared for soccer games that turned out to be fixed.

Even rewriting the record books is far from foolproof. When Korzhanenko tested positive in Athens, her Russian compatriot Svetlana Krivelyova was awarded a bronze medal.

In December, Krivelyova became another of those who have been stripped of medals after retesting, proving that even the losers who end up winners can still end up losers. Such precedents make it tougher to embrace fully the redemptive quality of stories like Nelson’s.

Nelson – an intelligent, articulate man – is smart enough to understand this. He has long been frank and eloquent about the doubts swirling around his event and about the damage wrought by doping, and he returned to the topic recently during an interview with The Trailer podcast.
“The reason it’s so important to me is because it does not matter what I say, what I do, or how well I do on the field; the assumption of guilt will always follow me because I compete in the shot put,” he said. “It doesn’t matter that I’ve never had a positive test. It means less now than it did 12 years ago.

“If you’ve read any of Tyler Hamilton’s book and you know anything about the BALCO cases, not having a positive test does not mean you’re not cheating anymore. So I’m guilty by association and by look: I’ve got a thick neck, and I compete in the shot put, and I make a lot of noise when I compete, and sometimes, I get angry.

“I get frustrated when I see or hear about people who are taking drugs and who are beating the system. They’re stealing from everyone in the sport. People like to say it’s a victimless crime. Hell, no, it’s not.”

How big was the difference between winning silver and gold in 2004? Consider that when Nelson won the world championships in 2005 in Helsinki, Finland, he did not have a single sponsor and had been reduced to organising an Internet auction to raise the $12,000 he needed at the time to keep competing.

Had Bilonog been caught in 2004 instead of 2012, it might have been – should have been – much easier for companies to get behind an Olympic champion like Nelson.

But Nelson, if he truly was clean in 2004, is just one of many victims of the pollution and the convolution. They include athletes in any sport who do something extraordinary, and they include all of us who travel through the day or night to watch and feel good, yet find it ever harder to believe our own eyes.

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