Medalling Affair

Cian O'Connor celebrates with his bronze medal 8/8/2012

Ireland sold out for a single piece of bronze, but those with respect for sport and an understanding of history know Cian O’Connor was never and will never be a hero, writes Ewan MacKenna

It was back in June when World Anti-Doping Agency director-general David Howman addressed a select crowd in Croke Park about the challenges that sport is facing. It was a thought-provoking and challenging speech from the New Zealander but it was also realistic as he admitted the battle they are fighting. And some would say losing. A lack of funding on one side is contrasted with a huge money-spinning industry on the other, involving everyone from kitchen chemists to organised crime so athletes can find a way to get ahead. Some have even suggested Wada are as much as a decade behind certain aspects of the drug-trade and therefore it’s unlikely there’ll be too many detections of those who can afford and risk the most advanced and untested concoctions.

It’s a pity that all Ireland couldn’t have been brought into that conference room a couple of months ago to listen to Howman and listen to the very real problems laid out in a logical but brutal way. But instead Ireland listens to Jimmy Magee again on RTE naming a list of Irish female greats and Tom McGurk on TV3 avoiding Cian O’Connor’s past in an interview before outrageously suggesting “in fairness, who’d go into China to test”. But we are cheap at times and earlier this week it didn’t even take 30 pieces of silver for us to be bought over. One piece of bronze was enough for O’Connor to be celebrated as a national hero by many.

It’s interesting that we look down our noses at China’s record, because abroad they see us that way. Our name is dirt and you can understand why. In a bid to lift ourselves up the medal table, many have been referencing a per capita version but do that when it comes to the exploits we try not to talk about and you’ll see our international reputation for what it really is. If, since 1996, we’ve had five medals either taken away or with an asterisk beside them through informed opinion, then to match up, per capita, China would have to have had 1,468 similar cases in the same time just to keep pace. We don’t do ourselves any favours either by first selecting and then celebrating O’Connor as if his career is something that should be rewarded.

Cian O'Connor talks on his mobile phone 4/11/2004

Ever since his bronze medal win on Wednesday, O’Connor has avoided talking about his past and avoided an apology. It’s been far more Alexandre Vinikourov than David Miller. After all, this is a man who presumes forgiveness even though he has never shown contrition. This is a man whose rights have been brought up over the last few days while we ignore the rights of fellow athletes who try to get on the podium by doing their natural best. This is a man who is believed to stand on the same rung of society as our boxers now and who we are supposed to look up to as if he’s some sort of role model and ambassador.

The problem with this type of dishonesty in sport versus breaking the rules of life is firstly that dopers are so difficult to catch and secondly they know they won’t miss much of their career even if they are. There’s simply so small a deterrent right now but the best way to ensure clean competition is to use what’s at your disposal. Given funding, and the fact drugs are so far ahead as Howman alluded to, what’s at our disposal is the possibility of a life ban. You don’t deserve a second chance if you are willing to cheat your competitors, your sport, your nation and the morals we rely on in sport. But look at O’Connor. He broke the drug rules put in place by his federation and his sport, used a banned substance that some say gave him an advantage, got caught and we aren’t even talking about the Athens Olympics. It was only after that incident that the Games in 2004 came along and the reward was he almost got a gold medal. But the risk wasn’t there and thus he’s now back and celebrated so soon after.

Yet still we turn a cheek, but if you are going to do that, at least know what we are turning away from because Irish people these last few days have become caught up in a frenzy of success, however wrong it has been. Those same people seem to have forgotten just what O’Connor did and are all too happy to avoid the details. But let us remind you of that summer of 2004 and not just the Olympics because his problems began in May of that year when at a show jumping event in Rome. That was strike one as a file relating to the case was stolen month’s later from Kill, Co Kildare and faxed to Charlie Bird. The cotents wouldn’t convince anyone of the innocence that O’Connor continues to protest.

Cian O'Connor 30/8/2004

The drugs discovered in the test taken on O’Connor’s horse ABC Landliebe that May were fluphenazine (an anti-psychotic drug used in the treatment of schizophrenia) and guanabenz (which is used to treat high blood pressure). When journalist Paul Howard asked Stan Cosgrove who ran a veterinary practice in Maynooth and had been vet to Shergar, about the drugs at the time, his response was highly critical. “I’ve never heard of them in all my years in veterinary medicine. They have absolutely no business being in the body of a horse. I mentioned the names to my daughter, who’s a pharmacist, and she knew them well.”

For those unaware, such drugs would make “hot horses” more manageable and in show jumping, where horses can be spooked by large crowds and where calmness is key, it’s a potential advantage. Yet oddly, the FEI, knowing both those substances are used for doping competition horses, failed to suspend O’Connor and merely stripped him of three titles he won in Rome. They did nothing else, back here nobody did anything either and by the end of that summer there was more controversy surrounding him as Waterford Crystal tested positive at the 2004 Games. In the lead-up to Athens, the FEI issued a warning about human antipsychotic drugs and their use in cooling unmanageable horses and Fluphenazine and zuclopenthixol were two substances said to be commonly used in the practice of doping. Crucially it added that none of the substances had any legitimate veterinary use.

O’Connor’s story through that summer changed. He first said ABC Landliebe had been stabled in Germany on the way to Rome and the positive test must have resulted from her treatment for colic. Later, after news of Waterford Crystal’s positive test broke, he suddenly claimed the same mild sedative was given to both horses, in ABC Landliebe’s case to help treat a back injury and in Waterford Crystal’s case, a fetlock injury. And by the end of it all, he said it was down to vet James Sheeran and claimed to know nothing only that Modicate had been given to the Waterford Crystal for what he said was to sedate the horse for treatment.

Cian O'Connor 16/2/2010

But a quick Google of that drug and you’ll discover it’s treat psychoses, particularly schizophrenia, in humans. The active ingredients are fluphenazine decanoate, an anti-psychotic agent that works by blocking the receptors in the brain that transmit signals between cells. Consider that and its usefulness in rendering highly-strung horses easier to control is obvious to anyone even beyond equestrian and medical circles.

All these years on and those questions have never been addressed, never mind answered. One rider at the time said, “According to the equestrian federation’s own rules, one, a second offence is automatically considered as an attempt to enhance performance and, two, the drugs found in the horse are classed as performance enhancing. The view of a lot of us was that Cian was a very lucky boy.” The stealing of the B Sample from Waterford Crystal certainly helped O’Connor’s name to be cleared in the second instance although no one knows why as they are outdated. In life you can go to prison on the basis of one sample of analysis and the reason for B samples in sport come from the 1970s when anti-doping was invented at a time when there was a collision between east and west in the Cold War and neither side trusted the other. The positive was sent to one side of the Iron Curtain, the negative to the other and both were happy. Quite why that could help an athlete in the new millennium, even Howman struggled to answer at that conference in Croke Park.

Some will say that this is O’Connor’s redemption but those Games in 2004 were his redemption after a positive test and look what happened then. Once bitten, you’d want to be overly-patriotic to believe certain versions of what happens the next time and you’d want to be downright deluded to celebrate such a person eight years on. During the week such a stance was called moral grandstanding by some but why should we not do our best to allow only athletes who have stayed clear from trouble to compete? The Games deserve better, Ireland deserves better, those in equestrian circles home and away deserve better and the reputation and destination of an Olympic medal deserves better.

10 August, 2012


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