In a world where doping control is almost non-existent and we can believe in little, more than ever our sports need whistle-blowers. The problem is it doesn’t want them. These are their stories.
“Hey man, sorry for the slow reply,” reads the message. “I’ve been out riding the bike around Normandy for some inexplicable reason.” Turns out Floyd Landis has been back in the saddle.
Stripped of the Tour de France in 2006, and bullied by both peloton and governing authorities in order to remain silent until he could take no more so that in 2010 he had to act, the sport in recent years had gotten the better of him. “For a long time it hurt to be near a bike,” he says. “Some people say time heals that pain, and for a long time I didn’t enjoy it but now I ride around and take in the scenery. I still like cycling, I guess because of my experiences it’s just been hard to separate it from it all. Only last year I got back and watched a bit of the Tour. It changed me, but it hasn’t changed.”
In a nutshell he sums up what is almost always the plight of the whistle-blower in sport. As one insider alludes to in cycling circles, speak out and it’s a game of insult bingo. “You lack talent, you’ve an ax to grind, you’ve sour grapes – take your pick, that’ll be the reaction if or when it happens next.” But far beyond cycling, big-bucks sport has shown it wants to keep the status quo.
Landis tells the tale of his confession to United States Anti-Doping chief Travis Tygart. Armed with endless evidence, he wanted to push the issue of doping beyond Lance Armstrong, hoping they would look at systematic failures deep into the core of the sport. “Travis said they’d punish everyone but he never did it,” he recalls. “He just wanted Lance to gain fame. And that hurt most as over time it became obvious all they wanted was to punish a few big-name athletes, raise more money from Congress by saying they were doing things. Wada too, almost all their funding comes from the IOC so they’ve to protect their cash cow. Athletes are just a commodity to them.”
Welcome to the world of the whistle-blower.
The problem is that honest sport needs them, but real sport doesn’t want them, thus there’s the veil. It’s why IAAF president Seb Coe pleaded for athletes to come forward, adding: “If you think you can help us get through this pathology quicker… it’s a golden opportunity.” But words wither, actions scream, and just last week IOC head Thomas Bach refused Yuliya Stepanova, the 800m runner who exposed state-sponsored doping in Russia, the chance to compete at the Olympics under a neutral flag. Having hidden abroad with her family for fear of retribution, the IAAF then insulted her further with an invitation to watch on at an event where 100s of other Russian athletes will compete having deceived everyone. Those are the real Olympic games.
It was watching that myth four years ago that Steve Magness could take no more. Formerly a senior coach for the Nike Oregan project under Alberto Salazar, he’d seen documents suggesting Galen Rupp had been doping since 16. Magness had suspicions about others too and when Nike-Oregan took a one-two in the 10,000 metres in London through Mo Farah and Rupp he broke ranks. “When I left Nike and split, moved back to Texas, I didn’t want anything to do with any of it. But then there was that race and it wasn’t a matter of I’ll get revenge, it was more a realisation that the world and the athletes should know what’s going on here.”
Initially sending an email to USADA anonymously, he thought better and put his name on it. Before any story even broke, though, the harassment started. Journalists would hang around his work and his house, some leaving notes on his garage asking to meet him at a certain location. Salazar himself even cornered Magness in the warm-up area at a Diamond League meet in 2013, nearly two years before his story went pubic and said, “Buddy, you talking to anyone?”
“It’s quiet intimidation,” he says. “They make it known that if you come forward… there’s consequences. The closer it got to BBC and ProPublica putting it out, people called acquaintances and warned what could happen. I was at a couple of meets, one in Portland and then at nationals in Eugene, and I’d coaching friends and agents saying you shouldn’t be travelling alone. At one point you are thinking that’s ridiculous, we are all grown ups. But I know the people in Nike I’m directly affecting and that’s scary. I missed the Danny Mackey incident by five minutes [a coach who filed a police report saying Nike’s global director of athletics John Capriotti threatened to kill him] and he wasn’t involved and here I am. Those real-life scenarios. That hits home.”
In Jamaica, Renee-Anne Shirley can attest to such intimidation. She saw first-hand how sport works on the inside and saw the practices of her nation as Executive Director of Jamaican Anti-Doping Commission. Unlike many she couldn’t live a lie, yet to tell the truth in sport involves courage and the aftermath involves fear. Described in her country’s media as “Judas” and a traitor, one report noted that she was “ostracised in the eyes of the entirety of Jamaica”. Indeed by 2013, when Shirley went to Wembley to speak at a conference, she had to do so without the blessing of her family who were concerned about serious threats being made.
“Today I’m still affected by it. Nobody likes anybody coming forward. I got very little respect, but my story isn’t unusual as it’s not something people welcome. So you have to feel within yourself you want the truth to come out as, for me, it was all over the newspapers and the radio, government ministers turned on me, but it’s par for the course. People will always cheat, that will never change, but you have the ability to at least put a road block. But you don’t put it at all? There’s no will to deal with it. The IOC, international federations, they are really scared of having their stars found guilty. It’s so bad it’s like Pandora’s Box, with a desperation to keep the lid down.”
In an era that makes you realise nobody is in charge of anti-doping, it’s become clear the need for whistle-blowers is greater than ever. But the reception for those who’ve spoken out causes Landis to warn: “I wouldn’t advise anybody to do it. Firstly you end up being scapegoated by everybody. Secondly it doesn’t seem to have achieved anything as who do you go to? Wada? They’re part of the establishment. They don’t want to stop doping, they’re a PR strategy by the IOC.” And that’s crucial in all of this for, as whistle-blowers suffered, their sports continue to.
And while that’s the greatest indictment of sporting governance, it’s also the greatest insight into it.
“I think about what I did a lot,” admits Magness. “When you are a whistle-blower, on certain days you regret it. Not because I think I was wrong but you feel that regret when you realise the sport is stacked against you. But overall I don’t regret it for the simple reason, even if no major change happens, it opens up the blinds to see who actually has influence. In a lot of ways it has got to the point where I’m not sure change is even possible as compared to four years ago I’m less optimistic. But, at the same point, I feel those who know athletics don’t have to live in this delusional world.”
Back on his bike in Normandy though, Landis has escaped that delusional world. He talks about those in his sport never understanding the idea of omerta, having never been awarded protection for his initial silence. “In the case of sport, people come back and are ostracised. That’s not omerta, that’s a bunch of assholes trying to protect what little bit each has. So for me to tell the truth, I didn’t need to lie to anyone anymore. But for a lot of people if they want to stay in sport, I wouldn’t advise anyone to talk.”
Later another message arrives from him. “I was thinking and can’t figure out how the world keeps letting the IOC sell the Games and its sports as some kind of positive. Sport… It’s a massive fraud.” Like most whistle-blowers having tried to tell the world, he knows it didn’t listen. But at least he can look back in the knowledge that he worked it out for himself.
Sunday Business Post
31 July, 2016