The drugs don’t work: understanding sport and mental health
My how we’ve grown. The book shelf. The paper weight. The recycling basket. And six years already since Martin Fagan sat down in front of me at the Broomfield House Hotel in Mullingar and made his first confession; he’d tested positive for erythropoietin, one of the most thrilling and readily detectable performance enhancing drugs better known as EPO.
He’d willingly taken it too, ordering EPO on the internet and injecting himself at his training base in Arizona in such grim circumstances he felt the low of the junkie. No one forced him, no one promised any cover-up, and no way was he escaping the two-year ban. No delusions either; Fagan had crossed a thick red line, letting himself, his family and his sport down, and no matter what happened next he’d always be known as a cheat, a doper, a fraud.
Then the second confession; as well as searching for EPO on the internet he’d found himself searching through suicide chat boards, what chemicals to take to die, with the least amount of pain.
He’d been struggling with depression on and off for a couple of years and had suddenly reached his most desperate low. At the time he was Ireland’s most promising distance runner, only now all hopes of qualifying for the London Olympic marathon that summer were over.
Cue divided opinion; to some, Fagan’s confession didn’t quite add up, and whether he’d taken EPO once or not, his struggle with depression should have nothing to do with it. Besides, everyone gets depressed, pull yourself together. To others, it was an increasingly familiar tale of the conflicting pressures and anxieties that often make up the elite athlete.
Depression is never any defence or excuse for doping, but may at least help explain it, or maybe even help us understand it – although trying to debate that with Paul Kimmage at the time seemed to divide opinion too. My own father, by the way, thankfully off the anti-depressants a long time ago.
What is certain is that six years on it’s still important to get across that part of the message. Fagan retired in 2015, shortly after qualifying for the Rio Olympic marathon, partly because he never felt entirely welcomed back into the sport. Perhaps for good reason. He paid a high price and rightly so but sport can’t begin to rid itself of doping unless we expose and explore the reasons behind it, rather than just ditching it all as cheating – or worse still wrap it around double-standards.
That’s one of the reasons why Munster’s recent signing Gerbrandt Grobler merits a little more attention. The South African lock was signed for the province last July by then Munster coach and compatriot Rassie Erasmus, mid-Lion s Tour and largely under the radar, or at least with little fuss over the fact Grobler had recently served a two-year ban after testing positive for the anabolic steroid drostanolone, when playing for the Western Province in the 2014 Currie Cup.
Then aged 21 Grobler, like Fagan, admitted the offence, citing anxieties over injury and pressures to get back playing: “I had my back against the wall and had reached a point where I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve done all I can, so what else can I do?’” he told SA Rugby magazine. So he took steroids. Like Fagan, he served his time and is perfectly entitled to return to his sport, and having featured for Munster A last night, it’s only a matter of time before he plays in the first team – all 19 stone and 6ft 7ins of him.
Current Munster coach Johann van Graan this week said that like life it’s “very simple”, that Grobler deserves his second chance, although what exact message does that get across to the younger academy players?
Grobler was effectively a stand-in replacement for Donnacha Ryan, now plying his trade at Racing after the IRFU decided not to offer him a central contract. If anything it’s important Grobler’s past is held up as another reminder or education or indeed warning of those conflicting pressures and anxieties that often make up the elite athlete; or in the case of a young rugby professional, that increasingly pressing need to be bigger, stronger, faster – while staying within the rules, naturally. It’s important too that double-standards don’t apply. It seems as if in athletics or cycling anyone who tests positive is forever known as a ‘doper’; in rugby or football, they simply ‘tested positively’.
Also six years on and still – with the possible exception of a positive doping offence – there’s no more difficult confession for any athlete to make than admitting a weakness in mental health, not just depression but with addictions such as drugs or alcohol or gambling. And don’t just take my word for it.
All this week, the First Fortnight festival has been trying to break down and challenge mental health prejudices – not by way of defending or excusing it but rather to better understand and explain it. Sport is also addressed.
The subject of Corinthian: Sports and Mental Health takes place at The Sugar Club in Dublin today. It’s still a hard message to get across sometimes. Take, for instance, the reaction to Johann Hari’s new book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions. Hari’s claims that almost everything we think we know about depression is wrong (particularly the diagnostic treatment) has certainly divided opinion, although again the one certainty is the importance of trying to get the message across. In sport, it’s not only about understanding those conflicting pressures and anxieties, because they’re ever-changing too, maybe an athlete one day, a rugby player the next.
Sport can’t begin to rid itself of doping unless we expose and explore the reasons behind it, rather than just ditching it all as cheating