Drugs in sport: Tour tainted again while unblemished Diamonds sparkle

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What do you want to hear the good news or the bad news about drugs in cycling and sport in general, asks Lachlan Barker.

Whenever I’m asked “do you want the good news or the bad first?” I invariably choose bad — so that’s what I will do here.

The Tour de France has been tainted ‒ once again ‒ by a drug scandal.

In this case it is Kazakh riders, brothers, Valentin and Maxim Iglinskiy. Maxim rode for Astana, the winning team in this year’s Tour de France; Valentin was on the Astana team at other events this year, but not at le Tour.

As you may have picked up from previous columns, I love the Tour de France — for the countryside, the great commentary, the endeavour ‒ all of it ‒ so this is very disappointing.

When the Tour ended this year, I wrote with some relief:

‘While the best thing of all – and I think I can speak for cycling fans everywhere on this – was that this year’s event was not tainted by a drug scandal.’

Even as I wrote that, I felt an undercurrent of nagging doubt — that perhaps I was being presumptuous and it was too early to declare the race drug free.

Sadly, I was right.

I should have remembered that drug testing is longitudinal now — it occurs all year, during training and during events all over the world and, so, a lag time needs to be allowed for all drug tests to be taken and then analysed.

Sadly, this process has resulted in this year’s Tour winner, Vicenzo Nibali, now being tainted. Although he is ‒ and was ‒ clean of drugs (as far as we know at writing date), the Tour de France is won by team riding and, as such, if any members of your team are drug cheats, then it reflects badly on the team as a whole.

The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) has announced an investigation into the Astana team and the Ingliskiy brothers will certainly be banned for some time — a year minimum, possibly more.  Astana will have their licence reviewed and may only be allowed to race with conditions.

Whatever happens, it’s disappointing. On the upside, at least they were caught, one can’t help speculate that ten years ago, in the Lance Armstrong era, none of this would have come out.

I will be looking forward to next year’s event of course, but a curious change will have come over me. Instead of tuning in eagerly to see who is riding well, and who is doing what, I will be following the UCI officials even more closely, hoping and praying that when they sit down to deliver their daily press conference, that this isn’t the one where they announce a(nother) drug scandal.

And since we’re here, what of other sports and drugs?

Australia has been undergoing the tumult of drugs in football, with Essendon (AFL), and Cronulla-Sutherland (NRL) both involved with the taking of sport supplements.

This is still a very messy business, with high profile Essendon coach James Hird still uncertain of his future.

At Cronulla, coach Shane Flanagan, and a number of players, including NSW and Cronulla captain, Paul Gallen are involved in the supplements scandal. The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) have finally announced that the Cronulla Players will face a back dated year long ban, which means that the players involved ended up missing three meaningless matches, as Cronulla had failed to make the finals series.

Following on from all this, Stephen Dank, the scientist at the heart of this affair with both clubs, has come out and questioned why only Cronulla and Essendon are involved — indicating that he feels that the use of supplements is more widespread in both codes.

Overseas, baseball in the U.S. was also rocked by a drug situation, with the most high profile player named being Barry Bonds.

Bonds is the all-time home run leader is American baseball and, as such, there is no higher profile player. His eventual conviction was for obstruction of justice, not drugs, but that was because he refused to give a straightforward answer to the grand jury about whether he was taking performance enhancing drugs.

At the time, David Wells ‒ a former pitcher ‒ estimated that

“25 to 40 per cent of Major Leaguers were juiced.”

Meanwhile, former designated hitter Jose Canseco went further and claimed “80 per cent” were using steroids.

At the Olympics, the highest profile drug case is generally considered to be the 1988 case of Ben Johnson.

Johnson, a Jamaican by birth who was running for Canada, tested positive after running the astonishing time of 9.79 seconds. The current record, set in 2012, is held by Usain Bolt at 9.63; at the time, Johnson’s time was way off the chart. He was tested, convicted and stripped of his medal.

After this, the stats show us that in 1988 there were ten drug convictions at the Olympics; in 1992, five; in 1996, two; at Sydney in 2000, 13; in Athens, in 2004, the dirtiest Olympics, 33; while Beijing, 2008, had 18; and the most recent Olympics, in London, 2012, had 15 drug related disqualifications.

The numbers do fluctuate, but there is generally considered to be an ongoing arms race between the cheats and the testers.

Every time the testers get wind of a new drug, or a new technique, the drug cheats search for a new way around it, making testing necessarily more complex, difficult and expensive.

So drug use in sport continues. Apart from the cheats destroying the love of competition for the supporter and honest athlete, the health effects would seem to be deleterious. Taking performance enhancing drugs is seldom suggested to increase life-long wellbeing.

An example of this is the sad case of Lyle Alzado.

Alzado was an American Football player who was famously aggressive on the field — overly so, many felt, even for this sport. After he retired, he admitted using steroids and then stated he felt that these drugs led to a brain tumour, which eventually caused his early death.

Medical researchers have not linked his type of tumour with steroid use, but Alzado spent the latter part of his life advocating against the use of drugs in sport.

Now for some good news, from a drug free sport.

Australia’s netball Diamonds won their second Constellation Cup match against New Zealand’s Silver Ferns in Melbourne this week, 49-40. They now lead the series 2-0 and a third win In Sydney this weekend will see the Aussies retain the cup.

This was another tense, tight affair — particularly in the third term, when the Kiwis were looming as a serious threat. The Diamonds, however, held their nerve and got home by nine goals.

New Zealand striker Cathrine Latu did everything she could, hitting at a 100%, with 25 goals from 25 shots, but it just couldn’t get the Silver Ferns home.

Well done the Diamonds — you are precious, fine cut, sparkling gems of Australian sport.

Lachlan Barker blogs at You can follow him on Twitter @cyclonecharlie8.

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