The drugs don’t work: un­der­stand­ing sport and men­tal health

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Corinthian: Sports and Men­tal Health takes place to­day, at 2.0 in The Sugar Club: for more in­for­ma­tion see www.first­fort­night.ie Ian O’Riordan

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.

Sec­ond chance

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.